The Native Americans of the Andes first cultivated potatoes at least 4,000 years ago. At the time of Spanish conquest there were approximately 3,000 different types of potatoes in the Andes. The early Native Americans prized diversity of crops, creating different kinds of plant for every type of sun, soil and moisture condition. They bred potatoes in a variety of sizes, textures, colors and tastes. They bred for other properties as well: rates of maturation, water requirements, storage, and livestock feed. In addition, they grew several root crops not currently used. They grew diverse kinds of corn, amaranth and quinoa.
Using these methods, the people were assured of having food in case of problematic weather or if disease struck some of the vegetables. In contrast, only 250 varieties of potatoes are grown in North American now, and no more than 20 make up 3/4s of the potato harvest. North American crops are at risk.
Early Northern European and western European countries like Russia, Germany, England and Scandinavia suffered from periodic famines. Corn and potatoes broke the cycle of starvation. A field of potatoes produces more food and nutrition. They are more reliable and require less labor than the same field planted in any grain and they thrived in Europe. They were a new source of Vitamin C that greatly improved people’s health. The population grew 60 percent and enabled power shifts in Europe.
Europe’s protein supply increased with the great variety of new beans: kidney, string, snap, frijoles, common, scarlet runner, butter, lima, navy, pole, French, Rangoon, Burma, Madagascar.
Sunflowers gave the colder climates a reliable source of edible oil. Sunflower seeds have become popular as snack food and mix-ins for food.
Corn was used primarily to feed livestock in Europe. Only in some countries did people consume corn. Europeans increased their intake of all animal products and developed a craving for American beef and ham. Native plants were taken to African and Asia. Corn, peanuts and cassava enabled African population to grow. Cultures across the globe added new Native American foods to their diet.
In the last decade of the 20th century, native plants were 1/3 of the annual U.S. harvest, corn was 15%. In 1989 potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts each sold for more than $1 billion, sunflower seeds close behind. Foreign markets want farm product and its byproducts.