become, been, been eating, called, disappeared, seen, spread, traced
People in the Andes region of South America have been eating potatoes for thousands of years. People in Ireland and other parts of Europe had never even seen a potato until the late 16th or early 17th centuries, years after the Spanish conquest of Peru.
So why have English-speaking people so often called white (as compared to sweet) potatoes “Irish” potatoes? It’s an interesting story, with a lot of drama.
Historians have traced the route the “Irish” potato took to reach Ireland. From the Spanish colony of Peru in South America, potatoes were taken to Spain as food for sailors. Beginning around the middle of the 16th century (1500s), potatoes had spread slowly through Europe. By the late 1700s, they had been adopted by many Europeans as a useful crop.
Initial distrust and fear had slowly disappeared as people recognized the advantages of potatoes. They found that potatoes added nutrients to soups and stew. Potatoes prevented famine when grain crops failed or soldiers stole all they could carry off.
(Europe had very frequent wars from the late 16th century through the early 19th century. Potatoes can be stored in the ground, since they are a root crop, so they are not so easy to steal.) By the early 19th century, potatoes had become a “safety net.”
become, been, been (2x), been surviving,
caused, come, had, preserved, returned, used
Potatoes have had some other major advantages over grain crops. They are easier to grow and prepare. They provide more food value-- a higher percentage of calories-- from a small amount of land than any other major food crop.
By the mid 1800s, historians believe potatoes had caused or contributed to a large increase in European population, as they prevented famine and allowed more people to survive on less land.
They had become a staple in the diet of Irish and eastern European peasants. In fact, due to changes in land policy, by the 1840s many Irish peasants had been surviving on just potatoes and milk.
Then tragedy struck. Starting in 1845, potato blight (a kind of fungus) destroyed a large percentage of the potato crop in Ireland and elsewhere. The socio-political situation was worse in Ireland. Many people there had no access to other foods or resources. Thousands died, and many more had to leave Ireland with nothing.
There had been Irish in the U.S. since the colonial period. Still, most Irish-Americans today can trace their families’ roots back to that mass immigration caused by the potato famine.
Over the years since the mid-19th century, scientists have returned to the Andes to find and develop more blight-resistant varieties of potatoes. The native Andean populations have always used many varieties of potato. Each has different characteristics including its climate tolerance and disease resistance.
The potato disaster in Ireland and Europe was far worse because the whole potato crop had come from those few potatoes brought to Europe so long ago. The Irish and European peasants had no access to the blight-resistant varieties growing in South America.
Many more varieties are available now, and potatoes are a major crop in much of the world. In fact, a survey of current use shows that the greatest potato production is now in China, followed by India.
Potatoes are mostly grown in the countries where they are used rather than for export. That's because they are difficult to store. They spoil easily if they have been kept in less-than- ideal conditions.
Researchers have been working with the farmers of the Andes to ensure biodiversity. They have preserved, and continue to grow, a great number of varieties. In that way, there will always be some kinds to survive if a major disease destroys others. We don’t want to take the potato for granted again!