Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Spud War

Chile and Peru are arguing over the origins of the potato

Peruvian agronomists, historians and diplomats are chafing at an assertion
by Marigen Hornkohl, Chile’s agriculture minister, who said Monday, “Few
people know that 99 percent of the world’s potatoes have some type of
genetic link to potatoes from Chile.” Peru, where the potato is a source of national pride, could not let such a comment pass. “Obviously the world has known for centuries that the potato is from Peru and that the Peruvian potato saved Europe from hunger,” Foreign Minister José Antonio García Belaúnde told reporters here last week. “The entire world knows this.”

The potato flap is a proxy battle for disputes over issues with higher stakes:

But the celebratory mood gave way to ire over the Chilean minister’s
remarks, reflecting festering tension here over territorial losses to Chile in a
war more than a century ago and more recent soul-searching over Chile’s economic
power at a time when much of Peru, despite its own boom, remains mired in
Chile’s use of the name pisco for its brandy also rankles here.
Peruvians say pisco is theirs, as port is Portuguese or Champagne is French. For
evidence they point to the Peruvian city of Pisco, which is surrounded by
Looming over the various disputes is a maritime boundary dispute
in which both countries are squaring off at the
Court of Justice
at The Hague. But passions have rarely run as high as in
recent days as Peru stakes its claim to the potato’s origins.

Chile wins the spud war.

Chileans gain comfort from studies showing that more than 90 percent of
modern potato varieties outside the Andes have a common origin in potatoes once
found in the area around Chiloé Island, in southern Chile. Potatoes from
found their way to Europe, where they were well suited to latitudes
relatively long days.
But potato experts here, and there are many,
point to
genetic studies showing that all potatoes currently eaten in the
originated more than 10,000 years ago from a single ancestor, Solanum
brevicaule, found on Lake Titicaca’s north shore.

So What?

The potato, of course, was a key ingredient of the Great Biological Exchange, also referred to as the Columbian Exchange. This exchange of food stuffs, peoples, culture and disease led directly to the death of about 45 million indigenous Americans (around 90 percent of the native population) and indirectly to the African slave trade, which largely repopulated areas decimated by European diseases, especially in the Caribbean.