An Ode to the Unsung Glories of the Humble Potato
There are so many things to worry about when you are a potato farmer. You can lay awake at night, visions of armies of spud-loving insects dancing in your head. Viruses, fungi, drought, mold, and even bruising are dangers that might wipe out your crop, not to mention any profit on your hard work. With over 40,000 acres of Ontario farmland blanketing $90 million worth of potatoes grown in this province annually, there’s a lot at stake. And if the pests weren’t enough, there’s the latest low-carb craze, which has caused many consumers to turn their backs on the beloved, buttered starch. On the other hand, Colorado beetles have not hopped on the Atkins bandwagon and remain a leading cause of crop loss as they munch their way through the potato fields.
There are ways to help protect against the natural threats. For example, organic farmers choose crop rotation as a viable alternative — changing fields forces the beetles to travel further to find food when they first hatch, and that limits both their survival rate and the damage they can do. (Some commercial farmers spray and spray and spray, using pesticides and fungicides to stem the tide of pests and prevent sprouting.)
Others have been turning to genetically modified (GM) potatoes, where the inheritable traits of DNA have been intentionally manipulated to produce desirable results. Seed companies use biotechnology to introduce genes from a donor organism into other plants. A common example of this is the transfer of a gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), into corn or potato plants. Bt produces a protein toxic to certain insects, and the genetically modified potatoes also carry this protective trait. Similar uses of other GM material now under experimentation may result in protection against viruses, nematodes, and fungi, and may also introduce potatoes with more desirable starch content or better storage capacity.
However, little is known about the long-term impact of genetically modifying our food sources, and the threat these manipulations pose to biodiversity. Much of the processed foods available in the grocery store contain genetically modified ingredients. Consumers are leery, and there is a rising global demand for better labelling, and indeed, for a halt to the use and development of GM foods. If you are worried about the spectre of a “franken-spud,” an edible version of a Mr. Potato Head run amok in a gene factory, then encourage the production of organic potatoes by shopping locally, and from farmers using environmentally sustainable methods.
And in the meantime, mashed, baked or fried, spud’s our guy. Comforting and filling, potatoes are packed with potassium and are a source of vitamin C, fibre and folacin. According to Jean Carper in The Food Pharmacy, “Potatoes, especially the skins, are rich in chlorogenic acid, a polyphenol that prevents cell mutations leading to cancer. Tests in the early 1960s by investigators at Florida State University found potato skins had antioxidant activity, meaning that they could neutralize so-called ‘free-radicals’ that damage cells leading to numerous disorders, including cancer.”
Charlotte Gerson and Morton Walker promote eating potatoes for healing in The Gerson Therapy: The Amazing Nutritional Program For Cancer and Other Illnesses (Kensington Publishing Corp.): “Potatoes are nutritional boons for any healing person. We recommend eating them for both lunch and dinner; replace them only rarely with organic brown or wild rice. Potatoes are of most nutritional value when baked. They can also be served boiled in their jackets, mashed with a little soup, peeled (after boiling), or cut up and mixed with salad dressing to make a potato salad. They can be baked in a casserole with onion, tomatoes, celery, and so on. If nonfat yogurt is prescribed after six to ten weeks on the Gerson diet, add onions, chives, or garlic to the yogurt for a tasty dressing for your baked potato, salad, or vegetable. Sweet potatoes may be served once a week.”
Store potatoes in a cool, dry, dark place to prevent sprouting. Interestingly, onions are alleged to give off a gas that accelerates decay in potatoes, and so should not be stored together.