With much of the developing world plagued by a global food crisis sparked by rising food prices and dwindling supplies of rice, wheat, and maize, the inexpensive, nutritious, and easy to grow potato has emerged as an attractive food staple around the world. In fact, the United Nations declared 2008 as the International Year of the Potato.
The United Nations is sponsoring potato events in several countries from May to August 2008, including the "First National Potato Congress" in Peru May 20-23, "All about Seed Systems" in the Netherlands June 2-20, the "Maine Potato Blossom Festival" in Fort Fairfield, Maine, July 12-20, and "National Potato Week" in Lembang, Indonesia August 20-23.
Billed as the "food of the future" for their potential as a high-energy food source and an easily cultivated sustainable crop, potatoes are a good source of carbohydrates, protein, vitamin C, fiber, and potassium. Most potatoes were grown and eaten in Europe, North America, Eastern Europe, and Russia until the 1990s. However, from the 1960s to 2007, potato production in Asia, Africa, and Latin America increased from 30 million tons to 165 million tons per year. China now produces the most potatoes in the world.
The potato, which is also called a tuber, grows just under the surface of the ground. The potato plant is an herbaceous annual plant known as the Solanum tuberosum in Latin. The Solanum tuberosum grows up to 40 inches tall and produces small flowers and fruit. There are two subspecies of S. tuberosum—andigena, which grows in the Andes where the hours of sunlight are fewer, and tuberosum, which is grown all around the world. The number of potatoes each plant produces varies; there can be as many as 20.
More than 8,000 years ago, the potato was grown in the South American Andes mountain range between Bolivia and Peru around Lake Titicaca. Farmers learned how to domesticate potato crops, which provided food security in Andean civilizations for thousands of years. The potato was first brought to Europe by Spanish explorers returning home from South America in the late 16th century. Eventually, potatoes were introduced to other European countries, although they were regarded with suspicion at first. In Ireland, however, where the soil yields good potato crops, the new food was embraced immediately. In the 19th century, potatoes saved the lives of over three million Irish people, who would have otherwise starved during the Irish Potato Famine.
Potatoes can be grown quicker, on less land, and in harsher conditions than any other major food crop. They are grown in low and high elevations and in many different temperatures, allowing them to be produced all over the world. Due to the shallow root system of potatoes, they need well-drained soil and plenty of water. Potatoes are categorized as early, medium, or late, according to how many days they need to grow. Early varieties need as few as 90 days and late need up to 180 days to cultivate. Unlike other vegetable crops, potatoes grow from other potatoes, so farmers set aside a certain amount of tubers every season for planting the next year.
There are thousands of varieties of every color, shape, and size in the potato family. The Russet Burbank is the classic American potato used for baking and French fries. Yukon Gold is a buttery yellow Canadian potato great for boiling, mashing, and frying. Maris Bard, a variety grown in the United Kingdom, is often boiled.