The United Nations has declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato (see article). It hopes that greater awareness of the merits of potatoes will contribute to the achievement of its Millennium Development Goals, by helping to alleviate poverty, improve food security and promote economic development. It is always the international year of this or month of that. But the potato’s unusual history (see article) means it is well worth celebrating by readers of The Economist—because the potato is intertwined with economic development, trade liberalisation and globalisation.
Unlikely though it seems, the potato promoted economic development by underpinning the industrial revolution in England in the 19th century. It provided a cheap source of calories and was easy to cultivate, so it liberated workers from the land. Potatoes became popular in the north of England, as people there specialised in livestock farming and domestic industry, while farmers in the south (where the soil was more suitable) concentrated on wheat production. By a happy accident, this concentrated industrial activity in the regions where coal was readily available, and a potato-driven population boom provided ample workers for the new factories. Friedrich Engels even declared that the potato was the equal of iron for its “historically revolutionary role”.