The potato is a starchy, tuberous crop from the perennial Solanum tuberosum of the Solanaceae family (also known as the nightshades). The word potato may refer to the plant itself as well as the edible tuber. In the region of the Andes, there are some other closely related cultivated potato species. Despite being first introduced outside the Andes region four centuries ago, today potatoes have become an integral part of much of the world’s cuisine and are the world’s fourth-largest food crop, following rice, wheat, and maize. Long-term storage of potatoes requires specialised care in cold warehouses and such warehouses are among the oldest and largest storage facilities for perishable goods in the world.
Wild potato species occur from the United States to Uruguay and Chile. Genetic testing of the wide variety of cultivars and wild species suggests that the potato has a single origin in the area of southern Peru, from a species in the Solanum brevicaule complex. Today over 99% of all cultivated potatoes worldwide are descendants of a subspecies indigenous to south-central Chile. Based on historical records, local agriculturalists, and DNA analyses, the most widely cultivated variety worldwide, Solanum tuberosum ssp. tuberosum, is believed to be indigenous to the Chiloé Archipelago where it was cultivated as long as 10,000 years ago.
Introduced to Europe by Spain in 1536, the potato was subsequently conveyed by European mariners to territories and ports throughout the world. Thousands of varieties persist in the Andes, where over 100 cultivars might be found in a single valley, and a dozen or more might be maintained by a single agricultural household. Once established in Europe, the potato soon became an important food staple and field crop. But lack of genetic diversity, due to the very limited number of varieties initially introduced, left the crop vulnerable to disease. In 1845, a plant disease known as late blight, caused by the fungus-like oomycete Phytophthora infestans, spread rapidly through the poorer communities of western Ireland, resulting in the crop failures that led to the Great Irish Famine.
The annual diet of an average global citizen in the first decade of the twenty-first century included about 33 kg (73 lb) of potato. However, the local importance of potato is extremely variable and rapidly changing. It remains an essential crop in Europe (especially eastern and central Europe), where per capita production is still the highest in the world, but the most rapid expansion over the past few decades has occurred in southern and eastern Asia. China is now the world’s largest potato-producing country, and nearly a third of the world’s potatoes are harvested in China and India.