The Mighty Spud
THE SOURCE: “The Potato’s Contribution to Population and Urbanization: Evidence From a Historical Experiment” by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, in The Quarterly Journal of Economics , May 2011.
Consider the potato: It’s dull in color, bland in taste, and prone to rot. Europeans initially suspected the spud of being poisonous because it bore a resemblance to the skin of leprosy victims. But the humble tuber has spurred great things, according to economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard and Nancy Qian of Yale. The significant increase in population and urbanization in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries owed a good deal to the incorporation of the spud into regional diets.
The potato’s unappealing exterior masks an abundance of virtues. “Because potatoes contain nearly all important vitamins and nutrients, they support life better than any other crop,” Nunn and Qian report. Add milk, with its stores of vitamins A and D, and you’ve got a diet that humans can live on. Potatoes are also packed with energy. An acre of spuds yields about three times more calories than an acre of wheat, barley, or oats. Plus, potatoes are easy to grow in tandem with other crops, and they make great fodder for cattle and other livestock.
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