There are numerous myths circulating about the origin of the potato. One thing is certain: the first people to eat potatoes lived in South America. And we can situate the introduction of the potato here in the 17th century. Starting from the last quarter of the 18th century, the potato was widespread here. From that time on, the crop was considered a fully-fledged commercial product and food product, even if at the time only a small part of the harvest was marketed.
There were a number of unmistakable advantages to growing potatoes. The potato fit well into the crop rotation system applied in Western European agriculture and also gave a return in less fertile soil. What’s more, the plant offered very high yields compared to other crops. The tuber has a high vitamin C content. As a summer crop, potatoes are less dependent on weather conditions than cereals, thus largely guaranteeing the annual return. From the last quarter of the 18th century, a few typical potato diseases could be treated better and finally the favourable price ratio is noteworthy: potatoes are relatively cheap food that in the first instance was above all eaten by the common man, mainly in rural areas. Towns followed later and after a while even the higher classes began to include the tuber in their dishes, which makes the potato one of the few examples of an ascending cultural product. Around 1800 our diet then evolved from cereal based to potato based. In other words: the potato replaced more expensive bread and other carbohydrates such as porridge.
The spread of the potato coincided with a pauperization process in Belgium and Western Europe. Consumer behaviour evolved and the consumption of luxury foods such as dairy products and meat fell. The high level of potato consumption led to a monotonous and unvaried diet. However, it did allow the population to keep growing during the second half of the 18th century; in turn the sharp increase in population caused the fast spread of the potato.
In the 19th century, potato consumption took off. Between 1840 and 1890, the number of potato acres in Belgium rose by no less than 70%. Around the middle of the 19th century, Belgian agriculture had reached its ceiling. In the eighteen forties, various failed harvests had drastic consequences. Veritable famine broke out in Flemish rural areas. The failed harvests of the staple food during the 1840 and 1850s showed that in the second half of the 19th century, the potato had acquired an important place on the menu of the Belgian people. Even the well-to-do and the urban population increasingly appreciated the tuber.
After the so-called ‘agricultural invasion’ during the last quarter of the 19th century, Belgian consumers could benefit from the cheaper import of grain from the USA, Canada and the Ukraine. The price of bread fell drastically and other foods such as meat and preserves followed. From the end of the 19th century, the consumption of potatoes slowly decreased as a result. A decline in welfare, for example during the crisis of the nineteen thirties and during World War I and II, invariably seemed to be accompanied by an increase in potato consumption. During the Interbellum, the production process underwent drastic changes. The labour-intensive growing of potatoes, from sowing and planting to sorting and cleaning, became increasingly mechanised.
After 1945, the potato’s dietary position changed drastically. Belgians ate less and less potatoes, amongst other things due to increased purchasing power combined with various social, economic and cultural innovations. The falling popularity of traditional potato dishes initially also had an impact on the growing activities. The production of potatoes in our country continues to fall after World War II. Starting from the nineteen seventies, potato production once again increased. In 2000, over 3 million tonnes of potatoes were produced for the first time since World War II. This remarkable surge can be explained by recent increased appreciation for Belgian cuisine and regional gastronomy in which the potato plays an important role. The rise in eating out and growing consumer demand for convenience food also caused an increase in the domestic demand for processed potato products such as fries and potato croquettes. In addition Belgium, and then above all Flanders, developed a processing industry that above all produced for other export.