The potato as an ethical food choice

The potato as an ethical food choice

Over time, different foods take on different perceptions in society. 

Eggs were once thought to be terrible for health because they would increase the risk of heart disease – but now they’re widely accepted as a high-protein, nutrient rich food. 

In some parts of the world nuts used to be a food to avoid if you were trying to be healthier or lose weight, because of their relatively high fat and calorie content. Today, nuts are known to be a healthy snack – rich in protein, fibre, and health fats. 

But sometimes it’s not just new research about the health value of a food type that changes public perception. Views can also change as a result of carefully curated campaigns that elevate a previously overlooked food to superstar status. 

Like the humble potato in China. 

What did China do about potatoes? 

In a report published in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs in 2019, a researcher called Jakob Klein explored China’s campaign to get more people to eat potatoes. 

In 2015, the Chinese state launched a strategy to transform the potato into a ‘staple grain’ among Chinese consumers and food producers. It was led by the Ministry of Agriculture, and the key purpose was to drive food security – by encouraging the population to consume an easy-to-grow crop that is known for its ability to thrive in various challenging conditions, including drought and frost. 

The materials produced through this campaign included (but weren’t limited to) cookbooks and a national television documentary. 

And in those materials, potatoes were celebrated for: 

  • Allowing farmers to save on water, fertiliser, pesticides, and labour
  • Supplementing the consumption of rice, wheat, and maize to achieve grain security
  • Being uniquely nutritious and valuable for consumer health

What did the campaign materials contain? 

The materials in the potato promotion included activities that targeted: 

  • Primary food producers
  • Agricultural food industries
  • Consumers 

There was some crossover between those materials – with some items targeting food producers and consumers. 

But the consumer-facing content included…

  • A popular science book, The Potato – Staple Grain, Staple Food, published by the China Agricultural Publishing House in 2015
  • A cookbook called The Versatile Potato – Everyday Recipes for the Home, also published in 2015 by the China Agricultural Publishing House.
  • A 2015 TV documentary by China Central Television (CCTV), called A Bite of Potato. It celebrates the craft and cooking practices around the potato. 

When you read extracts from The Versatile Potato, it seems that the campaign is actively trying to change perception of the potato as an undesirable food to a highly desirable one. 

The authors urge readers to know that potatoes don’t have a ‘strange smell’, and that potato starch should be neutral in taste and smell – a useful product to improve and complement other flavours. 

The book urges, too, that the potato shouldn’t only take a ‘supporting role’ in meals, but instead should be a leading component of a healthy and tasty diet. 

Potatoes were positioned as a patriotic food choice

Within the push for farmers to grow potatoes and consumers to purchase them, there was a clear message that potatoes were a food choice that would support national stability and prosperity. 

Choosing potatoes was a patriotic decision. When people bought potatoes, they were fulfilling part of their own social responsibility to make ethical food choices.

It’s a really interesting example of a government-led campaign that strives to shift public perceptions about a particular food – with motivations including public health, economic stability, and food security. 

And it leads to the question…

Did it work? 

Well; perhaps yes. 

Data from Faostat shows that potato consumption per capita in China reached 48.2 kg in 2020. That’s 3.50% more than in 2019 – and significantly higher than the all time low of 8.72 kg in 1986. 

In fact, based on a comparison of 165 countries in 2020, China ranked the highest in potato consumption – followed by India and then the USA. Not bad for a country that hasn’t always valued the humble potato so highly.

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