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Page 22 PART I Roots and Tubers As food for humans, root crops are second in importance only to cereals. These plants—whose underground portions may be roots, tubers, rhizomes, or corms—feed hundreds of millions of people. For instance, the annual world production of potatoes has reached nearly 300 million tons, sweet potatoes and yams over 130 million tons each, and cassava at least 100 million tons. Although pre-Columbian Indians of the Andes domesticated more starchy root crops than any other peoples, only one has become a world crop—the potato, which is now grown in some 130 nations and is the fourth largest food crop of the planet. The others have seldom been tried outside South America, yet they are still found in the Andes and represent some of the most interesting of all root crops. No other region displays such diversity. The following chapters describe the “forgotten” Andean root crops: achira, ahipa, arracacha, maca, mashua mauka, oca, ulluco, yacon, and seven little-known species of potatoes. By and large, these are attractive and tasty. They come in myriad colors, shapes, and sizes. They belong to botanical families as different as those of mustard, legumes, and sunflower. They tend to be richer in vitamins and proteins 1 than today's conventional roots. And collectively, they show enormous adaptability to difficult conditions. That this fascinating wealth of edible roots has been overlooked is a loss to the world and a particular loss to the Andes. From Venezuela to Chile, even minor efforts could earn big rewards. For example, some of the roots now being planted contain 10,000 years' accumulations of viruses. Although the viruses do not kill the plants, they greatly reduce vigor and yield. Removing them could bring enormous benefits, and it doesn't require fancy instruments or lots of money. 1 Although protein levels are quoted throughout this section, the figures should be taken with skepticism. Most were derived by the traditional process of multiplying nitrogen values by 6.25. This has recently been shown to sometimes give readings that are too high because roots can contain nitrogen in a nonprotein form.
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Page 23 Each Andean nation should have at least one national center for cleansing propagation materials. 2 Moreover, with appropriate control procedures, reinfection of the plants can be minimized. Some plants, for example, take up to 10 generations to develop significant levels of reinfection. Also, small agronomic improvements could have big effects. For example, in the Andes oca now has an average yield of 4.5 tons per hectare, but experimental plots, in which a little manure or fertilizer was used, have produced almost 10 times that amount. Similar improvements are likely with the other Andean roots. All in all, it is important to give more emphasis to root crops. They are often the crops of the poor. They provide more calories per hectare than the major grains. Perhaps more than most types of food plants, they are vital in remote areas, removed from the mainstream of commerce and agricultural extension. In addition, root crops are in increasing demand throughout the world. Together, the Andean root crops represent a new wealth of germplasm. It is the most promising source of new crops of this type. Considering that the Incas grew all these species along with potatoes, it seems irrational that only the potato has global promise. The 16 others described in this section at least deserve a chance. Given attention by plant breeders and other specialists, some, at least, could become important sources of food, not only for the Andes, but for dozens of countries where they are at present unknown. 2 Peru has recently established such a center at San Marcos University in Lima. HOW THE POTATO REACHED EUROPE To provide perspective on the possible future adoption of the root crops described in the following section, it is instructive to consider the irrational reception the Europeans first accorded the potato. When Columbus set foot in the New World, Europeans had no inkling of the existence of the potato. They lived on cabbage soup and mushes and gruels made of wheat, rye, barley, or dried peas. And, despite recurrent crop failures and repetitive famines, they seemed satisfied. It was only in 1535, near Lake Titicaca in southern Peru, that Europeans—the Spanish conquistadores—first reported seeing this tuber that had been domesticated by Andean Indians thousands of years before. In his Chronicle of Peru, Pedro de Cieza de León wrote perhaps the first description. “…[T]he roots…are the size of an egg, more or less, some round some elongated; they are white and purple and yellow, floury roots of good flavor, a delicacy to the Indians and a dainty dish even for the Spaniards.”
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Page 24 ~ enlarge ~ When it first appeared, the potato was classified as a form of truffle or underground fungus. This confusion led to several European names for the potato. Kartoffel, the German name for potato, as well as its Russian counterpart kartochki, both derive from the Italian word tartufulo, which means truffle. Even the word “tuber” comes from the same mistaken source. This drawing is reproduced from one of the earliest books on mushrooms: Franciscus Van Sterbeeck's Theatrum Fungorum, published in 1675. It was originally made for Clusius in 1601, but was not used because it was lost in the printer's office. It shows that even as recently as 300 years ago, Europeans still thought that potatoes were some form of fungus. The potato reached Spain sometime before 1570. It was planted as an oddity in a monastery garden in Seville. In 1576, defying Spanish export restrictions, Charles de Lecluse (Clusius) smuggled two tubers and a seedling plant out of Spain. Later, this famous Austrian plant collector gave the potato special mention in his health food manual, Rariorum Plantarum Historia. But publicity was not enough. Most of Europe treated the potato with apathy and then with hostility. Peasants lived with starvation for two centuries before embracing the plant. For example, in 1756 bad weather threatened to destroy Prussia's wheat,
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Page 25 rye, and oat crops. Starvation, the recurrent age-old killer, once more stalked the land, and to offset disaster Frederick the Great decreed that all his subjects plant potatoes. That was nothing new: his father, grandfather, and great grandfather had made similar decrees over the previous 100 years or so—some even threatening to cut the nose and ears off anyone who refused. But, as before, it was all in vain. Convinced that potatoes caused leprosy, the Prussian peasants obeyed the king's troops but crept back at night and secretly pulled up the plants. Then, in self-righteous dignity they returned to their hovels to continue to suffer the agonies of empty bellies. This was not an isolated incident. Similar scenes occurred in France, Sweden, Russia, Greece, and other nations. To Europeans of that era, the potato was dark, dirty, and highly sinister. Since it is not mentioned in the Bible, it was considered unfit for human consumption. Because it was not grown from seed, it was said to be evil. French experts insisted it would destroy the soil in which it was planted. Physicians all over Europe reported that it caused leprosy, syphilis, and scrofula. Botanists—even the great Linnaeus—cast suspicion on it because it is related to “devil's herb,” the deadly nightshade. Several countries considered it a dangerous aphrodisiac that would send their people uncontrollably mad with lust. It was not until the late 1700s that Europeans finally took up the potato with gusto. Thereafter, it revolutionized their eating habits. It came to feed millions to the exclusion of most other vegetables. Today, nine-tenths of the world's crop is produced in Europe. The greatest per capita consumers of potatoes in the world are Poland, Ireland, and East Germany. The largest overall producer is the Soviet Union. The Netherlands is typical of many: of the 5 million tons of vegetables it produces annually, 4 million tons are potatoes. From this former Inca crop, Scandinavia, France, Germany, and Russia eventually developed “national” dishes such as potato dumplings and potato pancakes, not to mention their renowned liquors aquavit and vodka. The turnaround in popularity of the potato was due mainly to certain “crop champions”—individuals of vision who dedicated their talents, emotions, and egos to the crop's cause. The most famous was Antoine Parmentier. After convincing Louis XVI of the potato's qualities, he tricked French peasants into thinking potatoes were fit only for royalty. As a result, the people pilfered the king's potato fields, and the plant quickly ended up in gardens all over France. In Germany, potatoes were also given royal cachet by a series of royal advocates, including Frederick the Great; and in Greece, by King Otto I. In Sweden, the potato's protagonist was Jonas Alströmer, who “stole” two sacks of them from England and (despite being chased by the British navy) got them safely to Stockholm. Such crop champions are what the plants in the following chapters require today.
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