Cover image for Notes of a potato watcher
Notes of a potato watcher
Lang, James, 1944-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
College Station : Texas A&M University Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xiv, 365 pages, 4 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
SB211.P8 L36 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



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.

Author Notes

He is an associate professor of sociology & former director of the Center for Latin American & Iberian Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of four other books, including Feeding a Hungry Planet & Inside Development in Latin America.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Lang (sociology, Vanderbilt Univ.) discusses all aspects of the potato, ranging from the nutritional value of potatoes, how they are propagated and bred, what goes into a good chip, and what pests attack them. Little about the potato is left out; even the politics associated with the Irish potato famine is discussed, along with an extensive amount of South American ethnobotany. Lengthy discussions treat how the International Potato Center (CIP) is working to develop improved potato varieties and cultural practices, taking into account the unique problems faced by indigenous growers. Lang reports on several visits to South America, Africa, and China to view potato improvement programs and the personalities involved. He emphasizes the research on seed potatoes that shows high promise in feeding the world's hungry and poor. Though the potato is the focus of the book, Lang also reviews the early development of agriculture in the Americas and the crops domesticated there. A particularly excellent discussion treats the diverse array of roots and tubers that were used by the Incas and the vertical assortment of these crops at different altitudes in the Andes. Readers will be thoroughly informed on not only the cultivation of the potato, but also the culture and history that surrounds it. All levels. J. Hancock Michigan State University