Public Acceptance of the Potato and What it Tells Us about the Acceptance of Wind Energy

By Paul Gipe


This article and its implication has struck a chord, so I am updating it.

I received a comment from Lisa Linowes, executive director of an anti-wind group called windaction, implying that I should be ashamed for suggesting that contemporary anti-wind groups might be comparable to the anti-potato rioters of the 18th century. She also implied that I’ve never talked to any anti-wind activists.

Just the opposite. Over the years I’ve had many opportunities to talk to anti-wind activists and, as I noted in my article, I’ve been physically threatened by some. Much of my 1995 book deals with this very topic because I felt it was so important to the future of not just wind energy but to renewable energy in general.

Her comments confirm my suspicions and I am happy my commentary is making the rounds of executives in the anti-wind industry.

For more on Lisa Linowes, see Lisa Linowes and the Disinformation of Industrial Wind Action Group. Note that her group has changed names or she has changed groups.

While I haven’t had any problems with her group violating my copyright (I have issued a cease and desist order to Britain’s Country Guardians), others apparently have. See Wind Watch Web site want your money for our work where the editor of the Watertown Daily newspaper had a long running dispute with an anti-wind group over theft of the paper’s property. Lisa Linowes promised that her organization would revamp its web site to conform to the Watertown Daily newspaper’s claim of copyright infringement.

For more on the organization, see Industrial Wind Action Group, where Source Watch notes that the web site was registered by Linowes husband, a self-proclaimed Tea Party activist and climate change denier.


In my book 1995 Wind Energy Comes of Age, I drew upon a wide variety of sources to analyze peoples attitude toward wind turbines and how best to integrate wind energy into the landscape and communities of which it was a part. This ranged from a silent film of Lillian Gish struggling against the wind in a Dust Bowl epic to academic studies of German romanticism. That exploration has never ceased. (Old habits die hard they say.)

I was struck by the similarities of the fanatical opposition to wind energy we periodically see today when reading—for pleasure–the fascinating book Food in History Reay Tannahill. In it she has a small section on the rocky introduction of the potato to Europe. Tannahill’s Food in History was originally published in 1973 the book became a best seller and if you ever come across it you’ll know why.

This is one of two articles drawn from Tannahill’s exciting romp through culinary history. The other article is Scurvy and What it Can Tells About Opposition to Climate Change & Renewable Energy.

The potato was introduced to Europe soon after the conquest of Central and South America. Potatoes were well known in Europe, especially in Spain–the land of the Conquistadores–by 1573. From Spain the potato travelled to Italy and by 1601 were common in cooking.

The fact that the potato was known in Europe doesn’t mean it was accepted as a food crop or used in cooking. “Acceptance” of the potato was anything but widespread. Some thought it was good for fertility in both sexes and “provoked lust”. Others thought it was deadly. Burgundians banned potatoes in 1619 because they were thought to cause leprosy and Tannahill says this idea persisted in France into the 18th century.

By the mid-1700s, potatoes were still considered fodder suitable only for animals—and for peasants.

In the days before the Internet and reality cooking shows, Tannahill says that it took two centuries before the potato was widely accepted as a food stuff. And even then there were outbreaks of what could only be called popular insanity.

“In 1774 the hungry cities of Kolberg refused to touch it [potatoes] when Frederick the Great of Prussia sent them a wagonload to relieve famine, and had to have their minds changed by the militia.” Similarly, the poor in Munich were resistant to eating potatoes as well.

Today we might scratch our heads at this. We eat potatoes all the time. It is a principal foodstuff. German and Irish cuisine are famous for their potato dishes. Who hasn’t relished bratkartofflen (potatoes fried in pork fat—lard) when travelling in Germany.

Not only didn’t people not want the potato, they resisted eating it even while starving. But not eating potatoes is one thing, revolt against the government is another. People died fighting over the potato.

Consider Russia’s potato riots. “In Russia in 1840 the government ordered the peasantry to plant potatoes on common lands,” writes Tannahill, “and found itself with a number of pitched battles on its hands and major riots in ten provinces.” These riots blossomed into a full-scale revolt against the Czar. See Wikipedia for more on the Russian potato riots.

It wasn’t until well into the Napoleonic era that revolutionary France, for example, finally incorporated the potato in published recipes.

Thus, it was some two centuries before the potato became a fully accepted and common component of cuisine across Europe.

But before dismissing what is today the laughable history of the potato, consider that we’re not as far from those attitudes that led to potato riots as we might think.

Rumor, suspicion, fear, half truths, and innuendo remain powerful forces in common perception. This year we in the West were stunned by the murders of women health-care workers offering vaccinations against the scourge of polio, a disease long eradicated here.

Of course the story of the potato and the opposition to polio vaccination is more complex than presented here. There is the explosive combination of fear of the unknown, fear of change, and the ever present resistance to top-down hierarchical direction whether to plant and eat potatoes or vaccinate your children.

Which brings us back to wind energy. We could just as easily picked solar energy too. The phenomenon can be seen at work in opposition to both technologies. But the sometimes nearly irrational opposition to wind turbines appears more widespread than that to solar energy because of the technology’s greater application.

When you read historical accounts of the opposition to potatoes, the wild charges that potatoes were poisonous and led to a litany of diseases, it can’t help but bring to mind the long list of maladies mistakenly attributed to “wind turbine syndrome”.

As with all good propaganda, or a vicious rumor that goes viral, there’s a kernel of truth. Perhaps the fear of potatoes as poisonous was grounded on the simple misinterpretation of the plant’s family: Solanaceae. It is otherwise known as nightshades, as in Deadly Nightshade.

So too with wind turbines. They are big machines after all. They contain moving parts all of which stand atop a tall tower. A fall from the tower is deadly, as is electrocution, or being mangled by the moving machinery in the nacelle. That wind turbines can be deadly is a fact. As I tell my audiences, you don’t want to be under one—or in one—if it falls over.

This simple fact whether through the skilled manipulation of a professional propagandist, or through the natural fear of the big changes to the landscape that wind turbines represent, wild rumors and hearsay can sweep through a community like wildfire. Anyone who has attended a planning or zoning meeting where wind energy is being discussed will hear just about any possibility if opponents and fear mongers have had time to work their dark magic on the community.

I am surprised no one’s been murdered yet, but there have been threats. My life has been threatened at least twice in such circumstances.

Let’s hope that it won’t take 200 years before wind energy and other forms of renewable energy are as accepted on the landscape as telephone poles, electric lines, and grain silos—oh, and potatoes.

Food in History by Reay Tannahill, Broadway; Revised edition (May 10, 1995) 1973, 448 pages, ISBN-10: 0517884046, ISBN-13: 978-0517884041, 6 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches, Europe and the Potato pp. 216-218.