Potatoes for peace: how the humble tuber stopped conflict in Europe

A new study says the introduction of potatoes and the resultant increase in productivity "dramatically reduced conflict&quo
A new study says the introduction of potatoes and the resultant increase in productivity "dramatically reduced conflict" both within and between states for some two centuries

The humble potato—drought-resistant, able to thrive in diverse soils, and enjoyed fried, steamed or baked—brought centuries of relative calm and prosperity to Europe after its introduction in the 16th century, a new study says.

The crop, discovered in Latin America in the 1400s before eventually sweeping through Europe, greatly boosted productivity, helping lower land costs while improving nutrition and raising wages, from peasants up to the ruling classes, according to the study for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The blessings that flowed from this helped ease the economic and societal pressures that can lead to costly and disastrous conflicts, says the report.

The introduction of potatoes and the resultant increase in productivity "dramatically reduced " both within and between states for some two centuries, it says.

The researchers, who examined 2,477 battles fought in 899 wars over a 500-year period, drew two key conclusions.

The first is linked to the declining value of land on which potatoes are grown.

According to the study, the value of the land on which potatoes were grown fell with advances in productivity. Populations were able to feed themselves on ever smaller amounts of land.

"Conflicts declined when the value of the object for which one was fighting decreased," the study says.

Meantime, increases in farmers' incomes, often due to much bigger and more reliable harvests, boosted tax revenues for the state, providing added governmental stability and thereby helping to "buy" the peace, the report states.

The potato was selected for the study because it can be grown in many types of soil, in different climates and is resistant to &
The potato was selected for the study because it can be grown in many types of soil, in different climates and is resistant to "drought shocks"

Climate shocks

To risk losing these resources—for workers and for political leaders—represented a financial danger that states were less and less willing to risk, resulting in "a decline in peasant revolts and civil wars," the study said.

It had become "too expensive to engage in combat."

The analysis does not detail the impact of specific wars or conflicts but says that most of those studied took place on the borders of modern-day Austria, France, Russia and Turkey. Others were in the Near East and North Africa.

The was selected for the study because it can be grown in many types of soil and is resistant to "drought shocks," researchers say, while other vegetables cannot be grown in conditions as hot or cold.

Cultivation of the potato improved nutrition in periods of cold or drought, helping ease the pressures of supporting growing populations, said Murat Iyigun, one of the study's authors.

The study's conclusions square with previous research on the link between climate shocks and a country's entry into war.

"The climatic shocks observed over time, like rough winters, have tended to favor the emergence of conflicts," said Iyigun, a University of Colorado professor. "People have had to fight to survive."

Do these theories apply to the contemporary world? Partially, he said.

"One of the keys to development, without risk of conflict, for the very poor still largely dependent on agriculture is linked to improving and steadying the supply of their agricultural output."


Explore further

Climate change aggravates global hunger: UN

© 2017 AFP

Citation: Potatoes for peace: how the humble tuber stopped conflict in Europe (2017, December 10) retrieved 25 August 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2017-12-potatoes-peace-humble-tuber-conflict.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
347 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Dec 10, 2017
Of course the resulting population explosion in the 1500s from all that good nutrition culminated in the 30 Years War in the first half of the 1600s, a continent-wide conflict during which the German population shrank by 1/3.

Researchers need to tell the whole story before proclaiming

"One of the keys to development, without risk of conflict, for the very poor states still largely dependent on agriculture is linked to improving and steadying the supply of their agricultural output."

-or just read some malthus and learn a little something about economic cycles. Growth, decay, collapse, and rebirth; the way things work.

Dec 10, 2017
And when potato blight met monoculture, disaster...

Dec 10, 2017
And when potato blight met monoculture, disaster...
Yeah that too, but that wasnt until the mid-1800s. The blight itself came from the andes, leading one to wonder if it wasnt imported purposefully to reduce overgrowth once it was no longer needed.
In addition to conflict, euro overgrowth wars responsible for dispersing euro colonists around the world. The British Empire wouldn't have been possible without massive emigration.

The blight also produced a wave of irish catholic immigrants to the US, adding vital genetic material to the melting pot.

The melting pot is not a passive mechanism. It functions by design.

Dec 10, 2017
"The crop, discovered in Latin America in the 1400s"
Wow, just completely delete indigenous Americans entirely why don't you.

I mean, "The crop, cultivated in Peru for ten thousand years, was introduced to Europe by Spanish looters in the 1400s" is only a little longer.

Dec 10, 2017
Otto, the potato was not cultivated in the German states until the 1700's. It was those damnable government bureaucrats requiring farmers to start growing them.

Before 1600, all the potato's were a tax, collected by the Spanish Andean vice-royalties to pay their Amerindian slave laborers.

During the Spanish Hapsburg's, having wrested control of the Papacy back from the French. There was some cultivation of spuds in Italy as curiosities.

The peasants were skeptical of the value of growing toxic plants such as potatoes and tomatoes. Not realizing the survival factor of greenery horses could not eat.

The Austrian Hapsburg's slowly spread farming potatoes across the HRE to the Lowlands. German officers noticed the lowly spud as worth cultivating. Even when they had to whip their serfs into it!

Armies of aristocraps and mercenaries would set their steeds to graze in grain fields. Or burn them out of spite. And they weren't about to grub in the mud for spuds.

Dec 10, 2017
cont'd This brings to mind other tricks that peasants have utilized to survive the attention of their rapacious betters.

Kim Chi, Lutfisk, stinky tofu, are just a few of peasant survival strategies. Producing a food stuff so disgusting that invaders would refuse to consume them.

Hidden in the ground to ripen up. Where drunken soldiery, rampaging through a village could not smash or burn the peasant food. Cause hey, that behavior of wrecking and arson define "mercenary".

I know, you're thinking "But I actually like kim chi!"! Yeah, you have eaten a very mild version of the product. I can promise you, sampling a batch right out of an old Korean farmer's field? You will be on your hands and knees gagging out your last week of meals!

Dec 10, 2017
The crop, discovered in Latin America in the 1400s"
Wow, just completely delete indigenous Americans entirely why don't you.
oh poor baby

"The crop, discovered [by europeans] in Latin America in the 1400s"

-there does that make you feel more empowered? Haha

Dec 11, 2017
Wait, so even thousands of years after Middle Eastern settlers introduced Middle Eastern agriculture and livestock to Europe, "Europeans" were still constantly waging war on one another? What's all this anti-migrant nonsense and how the incoming settlers are supposedly bringing conflict to Europe about then? Without agriculture "Europeans" would probably still be cannibalizing each other like they were all over Europe before (and even after) ME agriculture was introduced to it. If they were always at war I don't think they have any right to complain about the incoming settlers.

Dec 11, 2017
Hey whitefree why don't you take your stinking bigoted ass elsewhere?

Dec 11, 2017
Hey whitefree why don't you take your stinking bigoted ass elsewhere?


Whitefree pointed to historical facts. You wrote "oh poor baby" and other mockery when someone else pointed out that Peruvians cultivated potatoes for ten thousand years. There seems to be only one bigot in this thread so far.

Well, "whitefree" does sound like a bigoted name, but his words were all accurate, and his point (Europeans have no leg to stand on when they complain about immigrants) is completely legitimate.

Dec 11, 2017
And Hitler loved dogs. Margaret Sanger the institutional bigot had lots of nice things to say too.

What's your point?

Dec 14, 2017
An example of a major food and industrial source plant at severe risk, is the cassava.

For centuries, the simplest way of propagating the cassava is by cuttings. i.e. cloning instead of sexual/seed reproduction.

This unfortunate activity, widespread due to public ignorance. Has left a major food source for maybe a billion humans, vulnerable to diseases and genetic degradation.

I would advise that none of us should get too complacent in our coddled cocoon of white, first-worlder self-indulgent smuggery of bloated entitlement.

Yes, I know, your comicbooks are a constant reassurance of your superiority. More like the self-delusions of febrile affluenza.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more