One of Melissa’s go to meals is a baked potato. While size does not matter for most potato uses (mashed, potato salad, hash browns), since the potato is the meal when you bake one, we like to get the jumbo Russets as baking potatoes. We were almost out of potatoes, so I put them on my list for the market. When I entered the produce section, I could not find any of the large russets. They did have several varieties of smaller types of potatoes. There were red, golden, and 5 pound bags of small russets, but none of the jumbo russets. Instead, there was an empty bin where the potatoes had been. There were other items I had found last week that were no longer on the shelves either. No problem. I had seen bags of large russets earlier in the week at our town market. I made my other purchases and then stopped in our local market on the way home. Here again, all I found was empty bins where the russets used to be.
When I looked online, I found the potato (Solanum tuberosum) is a starchy root vegetable in the nightshade family (Solanaceae) native to the Americas. Wild potato species range from the southern US to southern Chile. The potato was originally believed to have been independently domesticated by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas in multiple locations, but genetic studies traced a single origin in southern Peru and extreme northwestern Bolivia to around 7,000-10,000 BP from a species in the Solanum brevicaule complex. Potatoes were introduced to Europe in the second half of the 16th century by the Spanish and have become a staple food in many parts of the world and an integral part of much of the world’s food supply. As of 2014, potatoes were the world’s fourth-largest food crop after corn, wheat, and rice. There are now over 5,000 different varieties of potatoes and over 99% of today’s cultivars are descended from those originated in the lowlands of south-central Chile. To improve disease resistance of Irish potatoes, Luther Burbank selected the potato that became known as Russet Burbank. It was not patented as plants propagated from tubers were not granted patents in the US. A russet potato is large, with dark brown skin and few eyes. Russets are also known as Idaho potatoes in the US.
Throughout the pandemic consumers have been battling intermittent shortages of various food products and potatoes appear to be the latest item to join the list of food products that are in short supply. China is the world’s largest producer of potatoes followed by India. These are also the world’s most populous countries and are invariably among the top producers of most food products. The US is the fifth-largest producer with Idaho and Washington accounting for over half the potato production. Potato demand during the lockdowns was strong as people loaded up on snacks and most potatoes end up as processed foods like chips in the US. As demand soared and supply fell, potatoes faced a supply chain problem like many other food products. This was exacerbated in November 2021 as Canada stopped the potato exports to the US amid concerns about potato wart fungus. Potato production in parts of Europe was also impacted negatively in 2021 due to floods. The global potato shortage has gotten worse in 2022 and the Russia-Ukraine war has only added to the food shortage situation. In the US the potato shortage is largely of the Russet variety, the baking potatoes used by restaurants and the popular base for French fries.
THOUGHTS: The russet Burbank is more expensive to produce than other potatoes, as it consumes more water, takes longer to mature, and requires large amounts of pesticides. Global fast food chains have been hardest hit as quality control regulations require using russets rather than local potatoes. In nations like Japan and Kenya they have been forced to offer alternative sides to replace the absent French fries. As dire as going without fries may sound, a real food shortage means there are no potatoes, onions, cabbages, flour, bread, canned goods, meat, or dairy products to be had at any store. That is what many nations (and individual families) face daily. Adequate food should not be considered a privilege. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.