The Potato, History’s Most Important Vegetable.

Potatoes were originally domesticated and cultivated for food in the Americas several thousand years ago. When European sailors discovered the potato in South America, which had been dominated by the vast Incan Empire, in the sixteenth century, their fortunes would be changed dramatically.

For starters, the voyage across the Atlantic was extremely long, and what made matters more difficult for survival at sea was that food preservation techniques were rather rudimentary at the time. Mariners mostly survived on salted meats and hard biscuits, which they often unwittingly shared with rats (and maggots as food deteriorated). Fresh fruits and vegetables were brought on board whenever possible, but without refrigeration, these were consumed quickly and did not make up part of the long term food rations aboard ships. Nutritional disorders abounded, not the least of which was scurvy, a disease that results from a vitamin C deficiency.

Clearly, this was a situation in need of improvement. And although potatoes were at first regarded with suspicion in Europe, they did become part of sailing ship’s food stores and eventually would become an indispensible part of the European diet, and it’s a good thing they did. Scurvy alone was responsible for the deaths of probably two million sailors from 1500 to 1800. According to Jonathan Lamb, “In 1499, Vasco da Gama lost 116 of his crew of 170; In 1520, Magellan lost 208 out of 230;… all mainly to scurvy.”

Potatoes provide starch, an essential component of the diet, but are also rich in vitamin C, high in potassium and a very good source of fiber. In fact, potatoes alone supply every vital nutrient except calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D. They are also more easily kept than leafy vegetables or fruits, which made them an ideal food stuff for sailing fleets. So much did potatoes provide, they soon became important not only to sailors but the entire European population.

Farmers could produce much more food with potatoes, than from grains alone, which was the basis of most diets at the time, and also protect against grain crop failures which periodically caused famines. Of course, dependence on the potato would become cause for another great famine in Ireland, which is a story of its own. What is certain is that through the course of history, the potato is one of the most important staple food crops, from the great Incan Empire to the sailing ships of explorers to the garden plots of Europe. And still today, the potato is the most widely consumed vegetable by far.

Jeff Chapman. The Impact of the Potato, History Magazine
Lamb, Jonathan (2001). Preserving the Self in the South Seas, 1680-1840. University of Chicago Press.