Notes of a Potato Watcher
Agriculture - Agricultural History
6.125 x 9.25, 388 pp.
8 color photos., 9 b&w photos., 5 line drawings., 8 tables.
Pub Date: 10/22/2001
Texas A&M University Agriculture Series
  cloth
Price:        $49.95 s

978-1-58544-138-9
  paper
Price:        $24.95

978-1-58544-154-9

Published by Texas A&M University Press

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Notes of a Potato Watcher

By James Lang
Foreword by Hubert G. Zandstra

The potato has a larger story to tell than its humble status suggests. In this fascinating account of the potato and its role in human history—and the human future—James Lang tells that story. Combining biology and social science, he describes the origins of cultivated potatoes and how they spread as a staple throughout the world; the many ways to propagate, store, and harvest potatoes; and the crop’s potential for feeding a hungry planet. Along the way, Lang also muses on art and agriculture, the stars and ancient peoples, and the cycles of time; he reflects on famine and demography, describes village-based, farmer field schools, and looks at the role the potato plays in feeding China.

Native to the New World, the potato was domesticated by Andean farmers, probably in the Lake Titicaca basin, almost as early as grain crops were cultivated in the Near East. Full of essential vitamins and energy-giving starch, the potato has proved a valuable world resource. Curious Spaniards took the potato back to Europe, from whence it spread worldwide. Today, the largest potato producer is China, with India not far behind. To tell the potato’s story, Lang has done fieldwork in South America, Asia, and Africa.

From the many potato projects studied, Lang learned a simple, direct lesson: how to address basic problems with practical solutions. Whether the problem is seed production, pest management, genetic improvement, or storage, projects take the diversity imposed by place and by farming traditions as a starting point. In agriculture, one size does not fit all.

Lang’s grasp of the social and technological issues involved is formidable; his revisionist thoughts on the origins of agriculture are convincing. Notes of a Potato Watcher explains how “think globally, act locally” can actually be applied. Here is a book that anyone interested in potatoes, development, and small farms will not want to miss, a book that explains why the potato was not the culprit in the Irish famine, a book that shows why solutions must begin at home.

James Lang is associate professor of sociology and former director of the Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of four other books, including Feeding a Hungry Planet, which is about rice production, and Inside Development in Latin America, which is about community-focused, self-help projects.

What Readers Are Saying:

Notes of a Potato Watcher includes a brief and excellent study of the sweet potato, plus worthwhile paragraphs on manioc, tomatoes, ulluco, uca, and other crops, most of them Andean in origin.” --Technology and Culture

“. . .is exceptional for the author combines his interest biology and sociology to present a thoroughly enjoyable account of potatoes and their role in human history.” --Living, Washington Daily News

“This book is by a man who is deeply informed about said tuber and its role in the human story—he includes a delicious twenty-three page bibliography, a page and a half of websites, plus footnotes galore—but is also passionate and personally engaged, too much so to leave out anything that might be pertinent.” --Technology and Culture

“The scholarly scope of Professor Lang is enormous; his firm grasp of the underlying biological sciences but also of questions related to development, history and the political and social environment of the Third World is truly impressive....Lang has used the story of the potato rather cleverly as a red thread running through the whole book convincingly connecting all of his arguments. I wish that I, someone who has worked all his professional life with potatoes and sweetpotatoes, had thought of that....Lang has rather brilliantly overcome the often deeply ingrained mutual suspicion and distrust at work between the social and biological sciences....Lang has created something that is significantly more than the sum of its parts.” --Peter E. Schmiediche, retired, International Potato Center

“The book is well written in an interesting style, is very readable, and very human in its outlook. The author’s ability to make sharp points where needed without toeing an particular party line was refreshing.” --Crop Science, Vol. 42

“Lang has rather brilliantly overcome the often deeply ingrained mutual suspicion and distrust at work between the social and biological sciences [and] has created something that is significantly more than the sum of its parts.” --Peter E. Schmiediche, retired, International Potato Center

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