NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 30, 2009

Does the modern world owe its very existence to the potato?  A recent study by a pair of economists suggests that the introduction of the American potato to Europe and later Asia and Africa might have been one of the most significant events in the history of human development.

Economics professors Nancy Qian and Nathan Nunn investigated the connection between population growth and potatoes:

  • Looking at population trend from 1700, when the potato was introduced to the Old World, to 1900, they estimated that 12 percent of the population growth and 47 percent of the urbanization during this period was directly potato-related.
  • Moreover, regions that are most suitable for potato cultivation -- Europe and India -- tended to urbanize and develop much faster than places that are not, such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Why is the spud so special?  If you needed to choose any one crop to survive on, the potato would be it, say Qian and Nunn:

  • It contains every nutrient humans need except for vitamins A and D, meaning that a person can survive indefinitely on only potatoes, milk and a bit of sunlight.
  • Potatoes are very hardy and they provide much higher yield than crops like corn and wheat, allowing countries to develop less space to farmland and more to cities and factories.

This could be why leaders from Fredrick the Great to Ban Ki-Moon have recognized the potato's power and encouraged farmers to grow them, says Foreign Policy.  Although its effect on population growth is less pronounced today, the potato is still a potent weapon in the fight against malnutrition, which led the United Nations to declare 2008 the International Year of the Potato.

Source: Joshua Keating, "Hot Potato: The Little Tuber that Gave us Modernity," Foreign Policy, November / December 2009.

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