In the recent popular sci-fi flick, “The Martian,” an astronaut, played by Matt Damon, is (spoilers!) left for dead by his crew and must keep himself alive on the provisions and supplies left behind. Luckily, a stash of spuds discovered in the remaining food stores allows Damon, whose character also happens to be a botanist, to grow potatoes in the red, weak desert soil of Mars, providing him with a nutritious, calorie-rich food source while he tries to escape his predicament. Science fiction? Yes, but maybe not for much longer.
According to a recent article by the Wall Street Journal, NASA scientists have begun a series of potato-growing experiments, using the soil of the Peruvian Pampas de La Joya desert. The soil, reportedly, is similar to that of Mars. The work being done will allow researchers to determine whether one of 65 different varieties being tested might be the spud resilient enough to allow a future Mars expedition to become self-sufficient and grow some of their own food. The humble potato might just be the food of the future, propelling humans into space, the so-called final frontier.
Whether or not potatoes hold the key to future long-term space exploration, they are an enduring part of both our past and our present. While potatoes have been known outside of the Americas for only a few hundred years, in parts of South America, particularly the mountainous Andean region, where potatoes originate, humans have been foraging for the tubers since prehistoric times and cultivating them for at least 7,000 years.
In Peru alone, there are over 4,500 varieties, many of which are unique to the communities that grow them. Potatoes are ingrained not just in the agriculture of many Andean communities, but also in the way of life, with some varieties being used as dyes, or even as wedding gifts. But why choose potatoes as a staple crop in the first place? Tubers that grow underground, like potatoes, store lots of nutrients that help the plant to overwinter, and humans have taken advantage of this nutrient stash for thousands of years. Additionally, tubers store well and can be cut up and used as seeds to propagate additional plants, making them a highly valuable crop for survival.
Today, thousands of potato varieties are grown in over 100 countries, and in the centuries since it has spread from South America to Europe and beyond, has become the fourth major food staple globally. Here in Kansas, potatoes are normally planted in mid-March, right around St. Patrick’s Day. Beginning in June, keep an eye out at the farmer’s market for some lumpy, tender taters. Boil them, mash them, or try making a hash, and think about how you’re taking part in a meal that has both sustained humans since the dawn of agriculture, and also may one day nourish human colonizers on Mars, or beyond.
Additional Resources to check out
International Potato Center
Peru Celebrates Potato Diversity
Mark Bittman potato recipes
More Potato History!