How the humble potato changed the world

The potato is the world’s fourth-most important crop after rice, wheat and maize, and the first among non-grains. How could an Andean tuber persuade the world, in just a few centuries, to adopt it so completely? What made the potato so irresistible was its unrivalled nutritional value, its relative easiness to cultivate as compared to some major cereals, its ability to easily navigate wars and tax censuses due to its knack for hiding underground from collectors, and in particular, its camaraderie with working men and women in the fields.

A good place to understand its origins is the Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), or International Potato Center, a research-for-development centre that researches and promotes all things potato-related.

It’s set in an arid suburb in the Peruvian capital, Lima, and harbours a collection of thousands of potato samples from across the continent. “The Andes is where the biggest genetic diversity lies, but you can find potatoes from Chile to the United States,” René Gómez, senior curator at the CIP genebank, told me there.

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