La Patate
(pomme de terre)

L'histoire de la patate: comment elle est devenue une culture alimentaire importante et comment elle a influencé l'histoire humaine.

La patate, qui était perçue comme étant empoisonnée au tout début, est devenue un aliment populaire et un point d'appui pour le Nouveau-

The Potato


   T. Richard Tarn,
Ph.D., P.Ag. Potato Research Centre,
   Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada,
   Fredericton, N.B.
  May 1999


l.gif (280 bytes)ike our other major food crops, the potato has a long and fascinating history. What is known today has been discovered by searching old documents on two continents, the lives, oral history and archeology of the people of the Andes where the crop originated, and by studying the plant itself.

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Remains found in dry caves in the Andes mountains of South America show that the potato was known to the native people of that region over 7,000 years ago. It is believed that the cultivation of the potato originated in the area of what is now the border of Peru and Bolivia, where it was cultivated extensively in small plots grown on terraces carved out of the steep hillsides. Pottery has been found from several Indian cultures that shows potato shapes in its design and is considered evidence of the potato’s importance.

The potato was not known outside South America until the Spanish conquistadores arrived there in the sixteenth century seeking the gold treasures of the Incas. Although they did not know it at the time, the potato was to become the most valuable discovery. The exact date of introduction to Europe is not known, but records from a hospital in Seville, Spain, show that the potato was being eaten in the wards there in 1573.

The potato did not become an instant success.

It was considered an exotic plant and was surrounded by many myths and superstitions. For example, the fact that it is not mentioned in the Bible was considered by some to be reason not to eat it. Some considered it poisonous, and others associated it with birth defects and with leprosy. Nevertheless, the potato had its enthusiastic supporters who believed in its productivity and good food value.

The Frenchman Parmentier decided that if he set guards around his potato plants, people would think the crop was valuable. Parmentier had his potatoes guarded during the day but removed the guards at night. The result was that his curious neighbours were so interested that they stole his plants at night!

As the potato became adapted to the parts of Europe where it was grown, it became a plentiful and cheap food and was particularly important in the diets of poorer people in many countries. This was the case in Ireland in the 1840s. When the potato was first introduced to Spain it is probable that it arrived without its many diseases and pests from the Americas. Most of these have since caught up with the potato and the most famous of them is the late blight disease. This disease is caused by a fungus that attacks the growing plant, killing the foliage and turning it black, and that attacks the potato tubers and causing them to turn to a smelly, dark liquid. This is the disease that spread through the potato crop in Ireland several times in the mid 1840s and destroyed the major food of the poor. At this time nothing was known about the disease or any means to control it. As a result of the failure of the crop, many people died of starvation in Ireland and many more emigrated to Canada and the United States.

The potato had been brought to North America long before the potato famine occurred in Ireland - the earliest record is of immigrants bringing it with them to New Hampshire, U.S., in 1719. The potato is now grown in most countries around the world. It ranks as the fourth most important food crop, after wheat, rice and corn. It is a good energy source with no fat; is a good source of vitamin C and riboflavin, and is low in sodium and high in potassium; it is also a good source of fibre. Plant breeders have successfully adapted the potato for production in many different environments, have improved its yielding ability, developed varieties suited for the production of frozen french fries and chips, and with improved resistances to some diseases and pests.

In New Brunswick the potato has been an important crop for many years. Early in the twentieth century, when the majority of the population lived in the country and most potatoes were eaten fresh, potatoes were grown throughout the province. Today, production is concentrated in the St. John River valley between Woodstock and Grand Falls. The production of frozen french fries by McCains started in Florenceville, N.B., in the 1960s. and this company has grown to be the world leader in the manufacture of frozen fries.

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New Brunswick potatoes are also made into chips by Humpty Dumpty, Ltd. in Hartland. Potatoes from New Brunswick are also sold in fresh table stock and seed markets in the U.S. and other countries. New Brunswick potato farmers produce many different varieties for these markets - some varieties have russet skins, some white, red or purple skins, some have white flesh and some yellow flesh, some have long tuber shapes for making fries, some have round tubers for making chips.

The farmers, supported by specialists in the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, use the best modern management practices to produce a healthy crop and manage their farms for sustainable production and the preservation of their land resource. Superior new varieties with improved performance, quality and resistances to diseases and pests, and improved crop methods for sustainable production, are the objectives of a network of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada potato researchers that includes the Potato Research Centre in Fredericton and Research Centres in Charlottetown, P.E.I. and Lethbridge, Alberta.