Time to welcome the humble potato out of the cold – it could help save the world


There are turning points in history: moments when the world changed forever. One such moment was in 1987 when my oldest brother came home from college and did two revolutionary things.

First he brought a friend who stayed over the weekend. Second, they made spaghetti bolognese. Seeing a can of tomatoes added to ground beef was more shocking to me when my mom allowed them to sleep in the same bedroom.

Generations of table etiquette were undone as we flipped our forks and twirled the spaghetti, playfully playing along for the guest.

It was our first potatoless dinner and Ireland has never looked back. Potato consumption has since fallen nearly 40 percent, with pasta and rice colonizing the carb space on the plate.

Yet at times like these, during recessions and wars, I look at the field where long ago my parents plowed, planted and harvested the humble tuber and I wonder: could each of us grow a potato now?

This week the World Potato Congress took place at the RDS in Dublin. Talks have been more intense than usual as Brexit and the war in Ukraine put strains on food supply chains. Food security is no longer just an issue for developing countries.

People often resented the subsidies paid to farmers from the EU’s massive farm budget, but these policies were driven by post-war food security concerns. As memories of starvation and rationing faded, we reveled in globalized complacency, slurping up cheap groceries, watching obesity rates soar and farmers being put out of business.

Despite endless complaints about rising food prices, the truth is that groceries are getting cheaper.

Sit tight for some numbers. A recent study by economist Jim Power for the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) found that the average retail price of groceries has fallen 9 percent over the past 11 years, even as consumer prices have risen 13 percent overall.

Between January 2010 and December 2021, the average retail price of vegetables fell by 8.5 percent, frozen vegetables by almost 20 percent and potatoes by 14.6 percent. So yes, prices will rise as production costs – fertilizer, fuel, labor and electricity – rise, but only after an era of insanely cheap food.

Essen reveals the enduring great gulf between what people say and what they do. People say they reject air mile groceries and want to eat local produce. Then watch them drive 10 miles to save 10 cents at a supermarket that imports vegetables from the other side of the world.

While poorer people spend a larger proportion of their income on food and are therefore more vulnerable to price increases, the average consumer’s demand for cheap food reveals a profound failure to connect the dots between climate change, food security and nutrition.

The potato is the typical victim of this structural upheaval, representing both each individual problem and the unsurprisingly simple solution: Eat more spuds – Irish spuds. It will make the world and your life better, and you won’t get better nutritional value.

I recently spoke to potato grower Barry Mitchell of Hill Farm near Navan, Co. Meath. He, his brother Padraig and son Gavin represent the third and fourth generation of Mitchells to farm this land.

In Jim Power’s analysis for the IFA, he identified aggressive competition in supermarkets as a key factor driving prices down. Cheap imports from the UK, which are continuing under the Northern Ireland Protocol, are also putting a lot of pressure on the Irish product. He makes a persuasive argument that regulations banning retail practices such as selling below cost are needed.

But Barry notes that two other facets of consumer behavior are influencing the market. One is the labeling. People often think they are buying Irish potatoes – or many other Irish food products – but the labeling is either unclear or misleading. The old trick is “packaged in Ireland” when the food comes from somewhere else.

He advises customers to do their best to shop at smaller greengrocers who are more likely to have bought locally produced potatoes. But the main problem is the general decline in potato consumption under the misconception that cooking is cumbersome. In fact, potatoes don’t take much longer than rice, especially brown rice, and if you cut them up and steam them, they’ll be ready in no time (boiling in water is very 1980s; steaming – especially Kerr’s Pinks – is the only way).

Barry witnessed a spike in potato popularity during lockdown as people started experimenting with cooking. His daughters followed TikTok channels and demonstrated the potato’s extraordinary simplicity and versatility.

Sure, throw one in the oven while you watch another episode of BridgetonAdd nothing but coleslaw, baked beans, or plain old butter and salt and you have a gorgeous meal for half of nothing.

Summer isn’t summer without potato salad (mashed, with lettuce cream and spring onions in our house). There is no other product that is so cheap, nutritious, sustainable and easy to cook.

But anyone who works with food knows that despite the popularity of cooking programs, many people really have forgotten how to prepare these simple dishes. Barry feels that cooking needs to be taught in schools since children so seldom see it at home.

Of course, any politician who advised people to boil potatoes to deal with inflation would be eaten alive themselves.

Everything must be the fault of the government and the only solution is more money.

But one of the few things we have total control over in life is the food we put in our mouths. So eat an Irish potato this weekend and help save the world. Time to welcome the humble potato out of the cold – it could help save the world

Fry Electronics Team

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