Walk through your local American grocery store and you’re liable to find two or three kinds of potatoes. Head to a farmer’s market, and you might find a few more varieties. Visit Peru, however, and every time you visit a restaurant or dine in a local’s home, you’ll see a different color and shape of potato, as there are 5,000 distinct varieties of these tasty tubers!
In Peru, my daughter, Anevay, and I were amazed by the gorgeous purple, blue and pink potatoes that were served either as our entree or, in the mountains, as a side dish accompanying a huge plate of meat. While stayed with a potato farmer and her daughter for a night on Amantani Island (Lake Titicaca), we saw first hand that not one, not two, but at least ten varieties of potatoes were being grown and harvested. Each potato served a unique culinary purpose: some, for example, were creamy in texture and soft on the palate, while others were known for their bitter or tangy taste.
5,000 varieties!!! Why did ancient Peruvians go through the trouble of engineering so many distinct potatoes?
In the Sacred Valley, just hours away from Machu Picchu, Anevay and I visited the ancient Inca terraces of Moray, which, although looking a bit like an ancient Greek amphitheatre, actually serve an agricultural purpose… a plant ‘laboratory’!
It took us about 20 minutes to walk from the top of Moray down fourteen elliptical terraces and six central terraces to its circular bottom. Due to either Inca engineering or geologic formations, the terraces never flood, and the bottom, which would seem likely to fill with water during a heavy rain, always drains. Always. Each terrace was carefully constructed using layers of sand and heat-holding rocks dug from quarries hundreds of miles away, in order, many have suggested, to keep the ground warm enough to prevent frost from killing plants.
About the temperature… Standing at the bottom, I noticed that the air was much warmer than when I had been standing at the top. Our guide, a nice, albeit slightly drunk, indigenous man who had downed a glass of chincha (a local alcoholic beverage brewed from corn) just before hiking down Moray, told us that the temperature varied as much as 50 degrees, making the upper terraces as chilly as high up in the Andes, and the lower levels, as warm as at sea level along the coast. This, he said, was intentional, as then the ancient Peruvians could experiment with growing foods that could then be raised across the entire Inca empire.
Pollen samples found in Moray have determined that a HUGE variety of plants grew there. We can thank the ancient people who developed new crops along these terraces, as today, 60% of the world’s food crops began in the Andes: potatoes and corn being the most familiar.
It’s no secret that genetic diversity is what makes our world go around. Darwin’s theories of evolution still hold: those species that are strong, and those that adapt to the changing world around them, survive. Those that are weak, or who can’t adapt, go extinct. With species going extinct every day, it’s important to maintain as much biodiversity as possible in order for life to keep on keepin’ on. This means, when considering the lowly potato, that it stands to reason that having 5,000 varieties of potatoes would mean that even if one of them succumbed to frost, climate change or disease, there would be 4,999 others to keep my favorite tuber going.
Why, then, would anyone think it right to destroy diversity? Just ask Monsanto, the biggest mega-agribusiness in the world…
Today, in the United States, Monsanto develops, patents and then sells only a few genetically altered types of Franken-seeds to farmers. This means that in America, there is no such thing as a potato farmer growing ten types of potato. Instead, our potatoes are uniform. They are of the same size, texture and shape, perfect for cutting up, absorbing the right amount of oil, and putting into a deep fryer to make fast food french fries. Huge contracts are made between corporations, and seeds are big business.
Back in New York, I posed a few questions to Anevay:
- Why did Peruvians develop so many distinct types of potatoes?
- Why, in America, have we agreed to let companies like Monsanto decrease the diversity of the potato to only a few distinct types?
- What does this mean for our society, if anything at all?
- And what might it mean for our health?
- The differences between how potatoes are raised in Peru and America: diversity vs. monoculture (the growing of a single crop)
- Monoculture and the societal collapse that happened after blight destroyed Ireland’s potato crops in 1846.
- Monsanto’s NewLeaf potato, which carries within it a gene from a bacterium that kills the plant’s insect predators
- Grassroots ways to promote the diversity of plant species, and what kids can do to help!
Read my next post to learn more about Our Global Kitchen: biodiversity vs. monoculture at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC.
Until then, perhaps you might be interested in reading our Guide to Month-Long Trip in Peru, with various destination articles, tips on travel insurance, immunizations, and more!