The Potato



The Potato (Solanum tuberosum) originated in the Andes of South America 8,000 years ago. It was around 6,000 years ago that Incas in Peru first cultivated them. 

The Peruvian Quechua language records more than 1,000 words to describe potatoes and potato varieties! The potato was believed to have medicinal qualities and was rubbed on the skin of sick patients as a remedy.


However, the invading Spanish conquistadors centuries later also loved the Peruvians' potatoes. The Spaniards had been on the look out for gold and jewels - potatoes became one of the exotic finds they excitedly brought back to Europe to impress royalty in 1536. The word ‘potato’ known in Spanish as ‘patata’ is derived from the word ‘batata’.


In France, Antoine-August Parmentier helped King Louis XIV make the potato a popular hit in the 18th century. Having been imprisoned in Germany - where he was fed only potatoes - he knew how to create a feast of fabulous dishes all based on this one ingredient. One guest at a Parmentier Feast was legendary American statesman Benjamin Franklin. He enjoyed it so much he spread the word to the "New World" funnily enough the continent potatoes had been taken from by the Spanish. "French Fries" officially arrived in the United States of America when Thomas Jefferson served them at the White House during his presidency of 1801-1809.


The potato started being grown in London by 1597, and soon became popular in Ireland and Scotland. Popularity for the potato came during the Industrial Revolution, when demand was created for cheap, energy-rich, non-cereal foods. Potatoes went on to become the basis for many peoples' essential nutrition around the world. When a fungus destroyed the potato crop in Ireland in 1845 the death toll of the infamous Irish Potato Famine was immense.



People also began to realise quite how versatile the potato was sometimes by accident. In 1853 railway magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt sent his serving of potatoes back at a swanky restaurant in Saratoga Springs, USA. The fact that he'd rejected them for being too thick enraged the chef, George Crum. To get his own back he sarcastically sliced them incredibly thin, fried them in hot oil and threw salt all over them before sending them back to the haughty customer. To everyone's amazement, the mighty Vanderbilt absolutely loved his "Saratoga Crunch Chips" and potato crisps have been a big hit ever since.



Potatoes are still making history. In October 1995 the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space! NASA called in top boffins to help them develop super-nutritious and versatile spuds to feed astronauts on long space voyages. Eventually they hope to feed future space colonies with their supercharged version of the potato the Peruvian Incas first worshipped!


Today, potatoes are grown on an estimated 19,500,000 hectares around the world. China is now the biggest potato producer, and almost a third of all potatoes are harvested in China and India alone. Asia and Europe are the world's major potato producing regions, accounting for more than 80 percent of world production in 2006. While harvests in Africa and Latin America were far smaller, production was at record levels. North America was the clear leader in yields, at more than 40 tonnes per hectare. Asia consumes almost half of the world's potato supply, but its huge population means that consumption per person was a modest 25 kg in 2005. The heartiest potato eaters are Europeans. Per capita consumption is lowest, but increasing, in Africa and Latin America.

The UK is the 11th largest potato producing country. In Britain we consume 94kg of potatoes per person, per year.


Potatoes are so rich in starch that it ranks as the world's fourth most important food crop, after maize, wheat and rice. The potato plays a strong role in developing countries with its ability to provide nutritious food for the poor and hungry. It is ideally suited to places where land is limited and labour is abundant, conditions that epitomise the conditions in much of the developing world.


1536 – The potato arrived in Europe

1609 – European sailors take the potato to China

1719 – Potatoes arrive in America

1801 – First French Fries served in America

1845 – The Irish potato famine

1853 – Potato crisp invented in New York

1929 – The potato peeler is patented

1952 – ‘Mr Potato Head’ toy invented

1971 – International Potato Center opened in Lima

1979 – Oven chips invented in the UK

1995 – The potato is grown in space

2008 – United Nations International Year of the Potato

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