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History of the Potato

The potato crop belongs to a number of american crops like maize and bean that have been introduced to Europe and other continents in the last 5 centuries.

There are more than 160 wild potato species, and most of them contain high levels of alcaloids. The first edible potatoes are considered to have been cultivated 4000 years ago in Peru. The south american Indians were in fact able to select alcaloid-free potato varieties, the results of which is still seen today.

The first cultivated potato species were diploid (some of them are still cultivated in South America). The development of the modern varieties was related to the spontaneous occurence of tetraploid species that were superior in yield. Almost all current varieties are autotetraploid.

The introduction of potatoes to Europe happened at two independant instances: around 1570 in Spain, and around 1590 in England. However, the large-scale cultivation of the crop began only in the beginning of the 19th century. Initially, the crop was used as a medicinal plant and grown by pharmacists, in Spain in particular. It was later introduced to other parts of Europe by merchants and kings, who encouraged the cultivation of this efficient plant to increase local agricultural production. The successful introduction of this new crop did not only require changes in the dietary habits of the people, but also a biological adaptation of the crop to a new climate. In fact, the potato plant being originally adapted to short day conditions of the tropical highlands, it would yield very little under the long summer days in Europe. Breeding over more than 150 years led to plants tolerating long day conditions. The modern breeding of potatoes began approximately in 1780, where crossings were performed between local varieties. At the beginning of the 19th century, the introduction of new potato germplasm, especially from Chile, contributed highly to the breeding of modern varieties. Towards the end of the last century, there was already a large array of breeding varieties available to the breeders. However, because of the need for new resistance genes against pests and diseases, the 20th century brought about the use of a large population of wild- and cultivated potato species from South America for backcrossings into European varieties. The potatoes of today in Europe are largely the result of the intensive breeding programs of the 19th century, but have benefitted greatly from the improvements in breeding techniques of the 20th century to improve traits like disease resistance, tolerance to environmental factors, etc.