Potatoes and population

Surely you heard about our population crossing 7 billion this week.  Nice graph of the explosive growith via Wonkblog:

As it happened, I was already very much thinking about population growth this week because I’m reading Charles Mann’s fabulous new book 1493, which details how the cultural and biological exchanges and old and new worlds after Columbus profoundly shaped the modern world as we know it.  You really should so read this book.  Anyway, I just finished the fascinating section on the potato– originally a South American plant– it truly transformed Europe.  It took a continent where starvation was basically endemic and allowed for major population growth because a field planted with potatoes instead of grains yields 4x as much food to eat.  I had no idea.  Look what that did for the population of Ireland:

40% of the Irish population relied on potatoes as their only food source.  Of course, it’s amazing that one food–plus milk– can actually give you all the nutrition you need.  At first, the potato in Europe was largely free of all the “predators” they had grown accustomed to in South America.  Of course, once a disease (actually an  oomycete) made it over from South America, the potato crop was ravaged, as was the hugely dependent Irish population. And as you’ll see in the graph above, it has still not recovered former levels.

Anyway, there’s more great stuff like that in 1493.  For a short version, definitely give a listen to Terry Gross’ interview with the author.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: