Potato Science and National Identity in Lima, Peru

Hello from Lima, Peru! I’m here conducting spadework for my dissertation research, which will start in 2011 and will deal with Peruvian identity as it relates to the commercialization of native potatoes. When I tell people here what I’m doing, they generally have one of two reactions. One is immediate enthusiasm: “Oh, how wonderful! The potato is a really important topic here.” The other is a little more disarming: “Well, the potato is really important to Peru, but I don’t understand why you’re in Lima… We don’t know anything about the potato here.” Both reactions give me confidence that I’ve found an interesting anthropological topic, but since I imagine readers of this blog don’t necessarily fall into either camp I’ll explain a bit about where I think this project is going.

The potato is undoubtedly a symbol of national pride for Peru; it’s a crop that scientists have demonstrated to have come from Peru (versus, say, Chile) and to date back to pre-Inca times. It even has its own international research center (the CIP) in Lima. But until recently potato consumption was decreasing in Peru; in Lima especially, people have been consuming more rice and pasta and now talk about potatoes as rural sierra food (in part because of the potato’s association with extremely impoverished farmers). In recent years, development work here has started to focus on getting better prices for native potatoes to help bring those farmers out of poverty, and one of the ways that this has taken place is through a campaign to improve the potato’s image. This campaign has created a National Potato Day, premium potato products like chips, and ads about the nutritional and gastronomic benefits of eating potatoes. And in making the potato appealing, the campaign has deeply and explicitly invoked the idea that the potato is a unifying symbol for Peru, something that bridges haute cuisine and humble agriculture. It is a theme that is particularly salient here in Lima, where the country’s agricultural past (and present) often seems incompatible with any vision of a modern future. It is for this reason that I’ve found myself drawn to the innovations that have recently occurred around the potato, and the frequent response that I get – “We don’t know anything about the potato here” – has only underscored my belief that the potato is a way to get at larger tensions in limeño identity. What does it mean to know that something is important but to feel that you can’t know anything about it? And what does it mean for the often-evoked need for national unity that so much of the population feels themselves to be alienated from the people who have that vital knowledge?
In putting myself in a position to explore this topic in 2011-12, I’ve been working to make contacts and find a field site that will help me ask and answer the most interesting questions I can during my longer research. I spent my first few days here frantically running from one National Potato Day event to another and was very fortunate to attend a forum on native potatoes that included chefs, CIP officials, and entrepreneurs. (I hadn’t realized until I went to this event that there’s actually an online database to catalogue native potatoes’ characteristics; it’s a way of protecting the potato as intellectual property!) I’ve slowly been making contacts at the CIP and am looking forward to interviewing some of the scientists there about their work. And I’ve been getting in touch with university professors here. Most of this is an extended process that will come to fruition more toward the end of my time here, but I’ve been pleased to find that the cultural and economic divides that I’ve been thinking about for the past year really are constantly talked about – and, in academic and scientific circles, often in reference to the potato. It gives me hope that whatever I end up discovering about the potato will actually be relevant to the people who live here (even if they initially fall into the second camp of responses to my research)!
Amy Lasater, PhD Candidate, Anthropology

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