Monday, July 6, 2015

In search of the perfect potato

The potato has a rich history.  According to Michael Pollan, the Incans grew over 3000 varieties depending on their place in the terraced mountainsides of their lofty cities.  The Incans had discovered over thousands of years of trial and error what potato grew best under what condition and relished this cornucopia of delights.  Of course, Francisco Pizarro didn't appreciate this rich history.  It was gold he was after.  However, he unwittingly gave Europe the potato, which soon spread around the world.

Pollan notes that the Irish were the first to adopt the potato in Europe, although a Danish friend insists the Vikings brought the potato back centuries before, although there is no proof of this.  There is a purple Viking potato though, which was developed in 1963.  Traditionally, potatoes have been crossbred to give better resistance to pests and viruses, as the Incans had done.  Farmers learned from the Irish famine that you can't put all your potatoes in one basket, as this makes them highly susceptible to disease, which can literally wipe out an entire crop over night.

The only problem is that this crossbreeding takes decades and the financial return on a yield of potatoes is quite small.  On an Idaho potato farm, Pollan interviewed a farmer who said he was lucky to make five dollars per acre, given all the pesticides and herbicides he had to employ.  When, Monsanto came out with the NewLeaf potato in 1995, this farmer was game, as it cut his costs substantially.

The NewLeaf potato was a cleverly bio-engineered potato that including a protein that killed the Colorado potato beetle, the single greatest nemesis for a potato farmer.  Pollan tested the potato in his own garden and found that the beetles immediately died when tasting the leaves, seemingly a testament to genetic engineering.  But, Pollan worried that given the protein was fused into the potatoes' DNA that it would in turn be picked up by other plants and pests that would eventually become immune to the protein.  Monsanto said not to worry, farmers would plant parallel rows of non-GMO potatoes where the effects of the protein would be diluted and the beetles wouldn't develop a resistance.  

It wasn't Pollan's skepticism, but the backlash to GMO foods that led to the demise of the NewLeaf potato.  McDonalds had helped fund Monsanto's potato experiment but when the backlash grew too strong to ignore, Mickie Dees dumped the NewLeaf and Monsanto was left with a whole bunch of GMO tubers no one wanted.  The NewLeaf went out of commission in 2001, shortly after Pollan's book was published.

The search for the perfect golden potato is what had led farmers to the Russet Burbank, perhaps the most popular potato in the world.   While Luther Burbank developed the potato in the 19th century to be immune to the same virus that killed the Irish potato, it has become  prone to all kinds of diseases over the years and requires excessive amounts of pesticides and herbicides to cultivate it.  One organic farmer Pollan met in Idaho said he doesn't grow them, saying it is too much of a headache, preferring other varieties that are easier to manage and more tasty as far as he is concerned.

Unlike flowers, where we seem to regal in their diversity, people prefer certain types of fruits and vegetables and the agricultural industry all too readily complies with a relatively limited variety of potatoes, apples and tomatoes.  It has only been with the wide scale growth of organic farms that persons are beginning to discover the beauty of diversity in farmers' markets.

Unfortunately, many persons still love their McDonald's golden French fries, so the Russet Burbank continues to command the lion's share of the market.  You probably won't be seeing purple Viking French fries anytime soon.

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