This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Monday, October 8, 2018

The Demographic Power of the Potato--UPDATED

The European "discovery" of the Americas was amazingly consequential in demographic terms. I discuss this in my text, of course, but a story in today's Washington Post has a pretty good summary of the three key elements: (1) bringing the potato to Europe to help fuel population growth; (2) the spread of disease that killed a huge proportion of the indigenous population; and (3) the enslavement of Africans to work on plantations created by Europeans in the Americas. Let me focus here on the first of these:
The potato alone gets credit for population booms in parts of northern Europe that paved the way for urbanization and, in turn, fueled the Industrial Revolution. Tobacco had such value it was used as currency in some places. Some American foods became staples abroad, from the tomato in Italy and cassava in Africa to the peppers that became the paprika of Hungary and the curries of India.
Eventually, starting with a group of monks on Spain’s Canary Islands in the 1600s, Europeans figured out how to cultivate potatoes, which form a nutritionally complete — albeit monotonous — diet when combined with milk to provide vitamins A and D. The effects were dramatic, boosting populations in Ireland, Scandinavia, Ukraine and other cold-weather regions by up to 30 percent, according to Qian’s [Nancy Qian, an economics professor at Northwestern University] research. The need to hunt declined and, as more land became productive, so did conflicts over land.
If you've read my book, you know that the statement above may give a bit more credit to the potato than it deserves. The potato arrived in Europe at about the same time that the plague was leaving, and at about the same time that the Little Ice Age was receding, thus opening up more farmland for cultivation. Still, were it not for the potato, it is unlikely that the health of the European population would have improved as it did, thus helping to set off population growth that eventually revolutionized the world. 

UPDATE:  Maybe this should really be a PRE-DATE instead of an update, but I just realized that I blogged about the demographic impact of the potato six years ago, based upon a paper just published at that time by Professor Qian, who was quoted in the above Washington Post story. Here's a link to that earlier blog post.

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