Potatoes Enabled the Industrial Revolution

July 26, 2010

Michael Pollan, in The Botany of Desire, traces the cultural shift from South to North in Europe to the introduction of the potato:

When the potato got to Europe, it changed the course of European history. Before the potato, the northern tier of Europe, the population was relatively small and was held back by regular famines caused by failures of the grain harvest.

The further north you go, the dicier it is to grow wheat. And so the center of gravity in Europe, before the potato, was the Mediterranean, where you could grow grain more reliably. The potato did very well at the more northerly areas. It did very well in wetter areas, and it did very well in really poor soils.

So suddenly there was this vast new source of calories that could underwrite the growth of the population, such as never would have happened without the potato.

Since one individual can grow so much food, you need fewer people in the fields to support an urban population. So it's really hard to imagine the Industrial Revolution proceeding as it would without the potato to kind of support it. This New World food remade the Old World.

Related: Geography and Industry


Onur Dincer said...

This only explains how North got rid of its disadvantages relative to South, but doesn't explain how it surpassed it as potato grew very well in South too.

Racial Reality said...

I don't think potatoes grow as well in the hot, dry climate of the Mediterranean. But the other reason the North excelled was that Britain, where the Industrial Revolution began, contains an abundance of coal. The North also didn't have to contend with centuries of invasion and conquest by Muslims.

Anonymous said...

Why could the industrial revolution not have proceeded without potatoes? I think you confuse two issues: British success as early adopter and technological change.

What was distinctive about the industrial revolution was not the growth in population and British empire but the technological innovation.

Without the potato you may have still got the technological innovation in Britain. However, it may not necessarily have benefited Britain as much as it did. It could have spread south and benefited countries at a lower latitude before Britain could have taken global advantage - e.g. France.

So without the potato, you could say with a smaller population Britain may have had a smaller empire, for a much shorter time. In no way did they "enable" the industrial revolution.

Something like the process described in Greg Clark's Farewell to Alms enabled the industrial revolution - that is, for centuries a merchant middle class out-bred a more surely and impulsive lower class (resulting in higher savings/lower interest rates). The potato simply enabled Britain to take advantage of it.

Racial Reality said...

I'm sure many factors were involved, not the least of which was Britain's substantial coal deposits. But there's more to Pollan's thesis than just population size. The potato helped to end widespread famine and the need for a large rural population, both of which were certainly hindering technological change.

Anonymous said...

Don't agree. The idea that potatoes enabled the industrial revolution is a simple idea that's simply wrong. (Yes they were important but let's not make exaggerated, unjustified claims).

England's last major famine was the early 17th Century. Why did it take so long (150 years or so) for "food security" to translate into technological revolution? One of England's greatest scientists Isaac Newton lived before potatoes became established in the 18th Century. There were many other inventors, Robert Hooke, who came before him and the potato. The Newcomen steam engine was invented in 1712, while Newton was still alive.

Population size is not particularly relevant because the industrial revolution wasn't about labour, it was about machines and the presence of an class within the population which could invent them. This philosophical class existed and laid foundations for the IR long before the potato became a significant part of the English diet.

Also, in the 18th Century the French had coal and iron deposits in Alsace and Lorraine. They had one fifth of the population of Europe and an inventive middle class - if population size mattered, why did the industrial revolution not start in northern France? The Europeans exchanged scientific advances, if population size mattered significantly the French would have taken the key ideas for the IR and ruled the world.

Racial Reality said...

Neither Pollan nor I are saying that population size mattered significantly. You're the one who keeps insisting on that. What mattered most was: not starving to death (i.e. ending famine), and not expending all energy farming (i.e. increasing urbanization). Those were the first steps, and they likely wouldn't have happened without the help of the potato.

Note also that the availability of key resources like coal is widely considered one of the main factors in Britain leading the Industrial Revolution.

Anonymous said...

What mattered most was: not starving to death (i.e. ending famine)

Famine is a short term phenomenon which, although deadly, when it ends there is plentiful food for the population to grow again. The last English famine was in the 1620s, so there was a long period of famine-less history before potatoes became part of the English diet - and it took time because the lower classes initially shunned the potato until at least the late 18th Century.

Much more important than famine to your argument should be levels of malnourishment. You may find malnourishment increased with urbanisation and calorific intake dropped. There may not have been famine after the 17th Century in England but malnourishment and stunted growth continued. The poor classes with their double-digit sized families suffered malnutrition right through the industrial revolution due to Malthusian expansion.

and not expending all energy farming (i.e. increasing urbanization).

As observed by Malthus, there was widespread malnourishment. The idea potatoes increased daily calorific intake (giving the urban poor more energy than they would have were they farming) for the poorest is unsupported by evidence.

Likewise you have not shown that the poorest class were responsible for the key innovations. Many of the inventors of the industrial revolution were of high standing who would have been insulated from the effects of any famine or malnutrition anyway. For example, James Watt's father was a ship owner and his mother was of high breeding.

There has been no evidence presented that ending famine - although the potato blight in Ireland makes that phrase rather hollow - or increased urbanization through cultivation of the potato in any sense "enabled" the industrial revolution.

Racial Reality said...

First of all, it's not "my" argument, it's Michael Pollan's argument. Secondly, I don't know where you're getting your facts but there were famines in Britain throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 1690s, there was a famine in Scotland that killed 15% of the population. The last big one in England before the Industrial Revolution was in the 1720s. And yes, eventually in the 19th century there were some potato famines as well. Pollan explains that as an example of the perils of monoculture. The Irish potato famine killed 1 million people and forced another 2 million or so to emigrate. That should tell you how important potatoes had become in that part of the world.

Derek said...

Everything the guy said about potatoes inducing great change in Northern European life is true, but he confuses the first introduction of the crop into Europe with its widespread adoption, which didn't happen until about 1750.


Potatoes may have given Northern Europe the final push they needed to begin the Industrial Revolution, but by 1750 they already had a large scientific and military edge over Southern Europe dating back more than a century.

Pseudothyrum said...

Racial Reality is right - it was huge deposits of coal, not the potato, that gave Northern Europe the technological edge over Southern Europe. Northern Europe had/has a very large amount of coal, while Southern Europe has comparatively little (or at least it wasn't as easily accessed centuries ago when it began to be used during the rise of the Industrial Revolution).

Oswald Spengler explains this in his brilliant short book THE HOUR OF DECISION - http://www.archive.org/details/TheHourOfDecision - also read Spengler's excellent MAN AND TECHNICS - http://www.archive.org/details/ManTechnics-AContributionToAPhilosophyOfLife193253


"In the Latin South, where one needs little to live on and does little work, where there is no coal and therefore no industrialism, where thought and feeling are racially different, there developed anarchist and syndicalist tendencies whose wish-picture was the dissolution of the great national organisms into systemless, small self-sufficing groups, Bedouinlike swarms occupied in doing nothing. But in the North, where hard winters mean harder work and make such work not only possible but essential, where from time immemorial the battle has been against hunger and cold combined, there arose out of the Germanic will-to-power, and its urge to large-scale organization, systems of authoritarian Communism which aim at a proletarian dictatorship over the whole world. And, simply because in the nineteenth century the coalfields of these northern lands had attracted an assemblage of people and of national wealth of a hitherto unheard-of order of magnitude, a very different impetus was given to demagogy both within them and outwards from their
I am well aware that most people will refuse with horror to admit that this irrevocable crashing of everything that centuries have gone to build was intentional, the result of deliberate working to that end. But so it is; there is proof of it. The process began as soon as the professional revolutionaries of Marx's generation had realized that, in North-West Europe, the dependence of industry on coal had become the vital factor of economic life. The bare existence of the growing masses of the nations depended on its flourishing. As regards England, this was already the case; as to Germany they were hopeful, and the doctrinaires who viewed the world diagrammatically as bourgeoisie and proletariat assumed as a matter of course that the same development must take place everywhere. But how did it stand with Spain and Italy, which had no coal?
Japanese industry is driving its white competitors out of the field in every part of Southern and Eastern Asia by its low wages and has already made its appearance on the European and American market. Indian textile goods are seen in London. And in the midst of this a fearful thing is happening. As late as 1880 the only exploited coal measures lay in Northern Europe and North America. Now they have been discovered and opened up in every continent. White Labour's monopoly of coal has vanished. And what is even more serious, industry has freed itself to a very large extent from dependence on coal through water-power, oil, and electrical power-transmission. It is now free to move about, and it does so. What is more, it moves everywhere away from the domain of white trade-union dictatorships into countries with low wages. The dispersion of Western industry has been in full swing since 1900."

Anonymous said...

Israel, Spain and Italy are all listed in the top ten countries for exporting the humble potato. So I think potatoes grow exceedingly well in such climates.


Racial Reality said...

I'm no farmer, but it does seem that there are issues with growing potatoes in dry climates that make it much more difficult:

"The very dry summer of 2006 had an adverse effect on many vegetable crops, especially potatoes, which need a constant level of moisture in the soil to grow well. A dry soil not only checks the growth of the plants, retarding tuber development, but also increases the incidence of common scab, a fungal disease that normally only affects the skin of the tubers but which, in dry soil, can penetrate deeper into them and seriously impair their quality.

"Even when, as in some areas in 2006, the drought ends in August and gives way to wet weather, thus supplying water to the soil in time to swell the tubers of at least the main-crop potatoes, the problem is not over. A sudden change from dry to wet soil can cause hollow-heart. This is a defect involving a hole in the centre of the tuber that is not apparent from the outside and so can escape grading and quality control. It is a particular nuisance in baking potatoes, because then it may not be discovered till the tubers are actually being eaten."


Unknown said...

Im doing an essay and I really need to know what the potato's contributions were to industrial society. I got bits of information from the discussion, but I really need a solid answer on how the potato influenced industrial society in several ways. It would be great if I could get a detailed response. Also I'm reading the book: the Potato by lary zuckerman. If that helps. My email is: shuaybamuhammad@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

overall info about potstoes:


Unknown said...

All I saw in your link that was revelent to the question I asked was that the potato help increase the population exponentially. Do you have more to add as of how the potato contributed to the industial revolution/industrial society??

FF said...

There has been a huge amount of potato selection in Europe to suit local conditions, since they were first introduced and continues to this day. The original
looked nothing like modern day potatoes. Many were purple for instance...and very warty.
Most Andean varieties were selected locally for altitude and one community could have several distinct types growing on one hillside from the lower to top terraces. Outside of Sth America in a relatively short time, varieties have been selected for high rainfall and low rainfall areas, amongst many parameters.
Recently new types have appeared that have been back-crossed with the old gnarly purple types to combine the smoothness of today's potatoes with the enhanced vitamins and phytochemicals present in the old purple ones.

dave said...

Ireland, Scotland and England were a great place to grow mold, until the potato arrived. It allowed the starving Celts to get fat, with little effort, and make many babies. Tragic that the Native American domestication of potatos, tomatos and corn lead to overpopulation in N.Europe and the eventual loss of the natives lands to the Europeans.