Consider the Potato

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, September 6, 1996 Rebroadcast on August 13, 1999

We really like potatoes. They are so easy to grow organically. In the spring, just plant an egg-sized piece of potato in fertile soil, hill up or mulch the vigorous plant that results and squish (or collect) any Colorado Potato Beetles that stop by. In a matter of months many small, new delicious potatoes are ready to be boiled, buttered and "served up" with fresh peas. Later in the season, big mature potatoes are just right to go into the root cellar, where the temperature of the earth will preserve them through the winter. There are literally hundreds of ways to prepare potatoes: pancakes, scalloped, roasted, gnocchi, mashed and even fried. Potatoes are simply great food!

Every year I'm impressed by how little work and land it takes to produce a plentiful crop of these nutritious tubers. With just a few hours labor, a 35-foot row produces 60 pounds of potatoes. That's half a year's supply for the average American, who eats more potatoes than any other food besides wheat.

Over ninety-five percent of a potato is made out of air and water, as photosynthesis weaves its magic, storing energy from the sun in a very delicious form. Potatoes are one of the few foods which provide all the nutrients humans need. We can actually live on potatoes alone.

Ten pounds of potatoes contain 24 hours worth of energy and nutrients for a human being. So, about five feet of potatoes provides more than enough energy to power my body for planting, tending and harvesting that whole 35 foot row. This totally solar-powered food source has a real elegance. Potatoes definitely produce an excellent return on the human energy we invest. And, there's no fossil fuel or chemical pollution.

In this country, however, most potatoes are not grown organically using efficient human energy on small plots near where they are eaten. Instead, they are produced using tons of chemicals on mega-farms quite a distance from where people live. Both the size of the farms and their distance from the eaters encourage greater use of chemicals. In addition to fungicides, herbicides and insecticides used in growing potatoes, sprout-inhibitors are sprayed to keep potatoes salable after their long trip.

Much of the potato crop is turned into chips and fries after being striped of its vitamin C-and-potassium-rich skins. Giant factories process other potatoes into little shapes which are kept frozen there, and then in a truck, a warehouse, a supermarket and finally in a home before being heated and eaten. After this treatment, these potatoes all taste about the same.

Potatoes are very big business. For example, the potatoes used for French fries in fatty-food, excuse me, fast food restaurants, are grown by large corporate farms, processed by a global food manufacturer then sold by a third giant corporation. This piece of the potato business by itself provides opportunities for many other companies. Transnational chemical and drug companies are happy to supply the poisons used to grow these potatoes. One of them has even figured out how to get the potato to make its own insecticide. And we need trucks, lots of refrigerated, frozen food and even potato chip delivery vehicles, to insure a steady supply of those small packages to every supermarket, corner store, school and gas station.

Once we've come this far, we also need Wall Street types to raise money for new potato ventures, regulators to check on most everything and of course, we need lots of lawyers.

It seems like one of the world's greatest "make-work" schemes. Unfortunately, it's a system which consumes enormous amounts energy and money and creates lots of pollution as machines do more work at each step in the process. All this energy use, transportation, regulation and pollution has to be paid for, but in the end, all we really have is a potato. It may be less flavorful and more polluted, to be sure, than the ones from our organic gardens, but it's just a potato - 95% air and water.

Potatoes are a good example of the possibilities for radical redesign of our food system. We may not be able to change the world, but we can change the way we eat.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1999 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.