Tuesday, June 21, 2011

How the potato staple fastens the boom

"The great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes." Karl Marx

Just as he ridiculed the French bourgeoisie of his time, Marx himself evidently had little affinity for the humble potato, but one of his contemporaries had different ideas. Friedrich Engels identified how the potato underpinned the British industrial revolution of the 19th century, even going so far as to declare it the equal of iron for its "historically revolutionary role".

As a cheap source of calories and nutrients, and easy for urbanized workers to grow in the backyard plots of their terraced and tenement housing, potatoes became popular in England's northern coal regions during the early 19th century. Just as coal fired the furnace, the potato fuelled a population boom that provided the labour necessary for rapid industrial growth.

Is it a coincidence then, as China continues a sublime upward curve, and India's population explodes in parallel with unbridled economic development, that China and India now harvest nearly one third of the world's annual potato crop?

Metrically less labour-intensive and more nutritional per acre, and often more easily cultivated than rice, the exponential switch from the traditional crop to the bulbous tuber has unleashed a baby boom tsunami and a tidal wave of manpower.

This rapid community aggregation combined with a bedrock of diverse economic, cultural and artistic infrastructures, has productized these two countries. India and China have incubated a rich seam of models and best-of-breed deliverables synergized with all aspects of the supply-chain, from manufacturing goods to hi-tech e-solutions and consultancy services.

You have to ask: would all this be, were it not for some strong Désirée, an occasional Fingerling and a bit of Pink Eye?


  1. Of course, the potato has a lower water requirement than rice, which is the real reason for the switch-over. I would also argue against describing the increase in potato consumption as exponential. As I understand it, it is more of a steady state expansion, representing diversification rather than replacenent.

  2. You make a good point there THX1138.

    The potato is now the world's fourth largest food crop behind rice, wheat and maize, so indeed diversification is the keyword that I should have used.

    However, whilst it took time, in Britain's 19th century boom, in the North of England the growing of potatoes chipped away at traditional pasttimes such as ferreting and flatcap-making, finally almost eradicating them altogether. This hasn't yet happened to the rice crop, but it's surely only a matter of time.

  3. That may be so, but pigeon fanciers were not so easily bought and continued stubbornly to ply their craft, eventually banishing large scale potato growing to East Anglia. An intersting application of the butterfly theory.