Unnatural Food

My forthcoming book Unnaturally Delicious is set for release in March.  So far, the most common questions have been, "why did you pick that title?" and "is it a book about GMOs?"  The questions stem from a food culture that has elevated the status of "natural" food to such a point that it seems odd to pair a positive connotation with the word unnatural.  There is, in my assessment, a vast under-appreciation for all the unnatural ways our food has changed over time (and I'm not talking about GMOs - I only lightly touch on this issue in a couple chapters of the book - hopefully in ways people haven't thought about before).  

These thoughts came to mind when I stumbled upon  this 2011 paper by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.  They discuss the evolution of the potato and the impacts of this crop as it moved from the New World to the Old.  Many of us think of "Irish Potatoes" or Britian's "Bangers and Mash" as if they were the most natural foods these folks could have every eaten.  The historical reality, of course, is that potatoes are were "unnatural" foods introduced to Europe only a few hundred years ago.  

The authors begin the paper:

Between 1000 and 1900, world population grew from under 300 million to 1.6 billion, and the share of population living in urban areas more than quadrupled, increasing from two to over nine percent.

Nunn and Qian make a compelling case that a significant explanatory factor for this change was none other than the spud.  They write:

According to our most conservative estimates, the introduction of the potato accounts for approximately one-quarter of the growth in Old World population and urbanization between 1700 and 1900


Potatoes provide more calories, vitamins, and nutrients per area of land sown than other staple crops

Maybe you think the world is too crowded already, and that this change is a curse rather than a blessing.  Another way to look at it: there is a reasonable chance some of the people reading this very blog wouldn't be here right now had the potato stayed local and not spread out from South America.  

The paper makes the case that the potato, along with other items that made up the  Columbian Exchange, is a significant factor contributing to the rise in European living standards in the 16th and 17th centuries.  The paper shows that regions that first adopted the potato, and had soils and climates more suitable for potato growing, experienced more rapid population growth, and thus the potato possibly affected national and international politics of the time.  The whole paper is full of interesting historical details.  For example, looking at the height of soldiers in France, the authors find:  

for towns that were fully suitable for potato cultivation, the introduction of the potato increased average adult height by 0.41–0.78 inches.

However natural potatoes might now seem, it is important to keep in mind there was a time when they weren't.  And, we're better off today because our ancestors took a chance on the unnatural foodstuff.