Crop failure. Famine. Starvation.
For most Americans, these words maintain some meaning, but mostly in a historical context. With an abundant food supply, we hardly recognize the reality of such things, and consider it only something that happens in other parts of the world. Even in 2012, when many farmers suffered through a drought, most consumers likely did not even notice, aside from needing to water their lawns more often. If anything, they may have experienced negligible price increases at the grocery store.
But for much of human history, the reality of crop failure, famine, and starvation was front and center, and many significant historical events shaping politics and world governments resulted from food shortages.
Of course, with today being St. Patrick’s Day, it is the perfect opportunity to reflect on one of those crop failures that changed the course of history — the Great Potato Famine.
Life in Ireland in the mid-1800s cannot be described as anything other than hard, especially for the mostly illiterate masses that attempted to survive by living off the land. Land was usually owned by wealthy British aristocrats, who usually lived away from their estates at court. Their lands were divided up into regions and run by middle-men, who divided them up even further and rented parcels to Irish families. The average family farm at the time was a mere 10 acres.
These struggling Irish families turned to potatoes for their diet staple, because it is rich in protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, and Vitamin C. In fact, it is possible to subsist on potatoes alone, which was probably true for many of these poor families. While the potato seems synonymous with Ireland today, it actually originated in South America, probably finding its way to Europe in the mid-1800’s. But Irish farmers found that it grew well in Ireland’s climate, produced more per acre than other crops, and could (mostly) feed their families.
Then, it happened. In September of 1845, Irish farmers noticed that their potato plants started to mysteriously wither and die. When the potatoes were pulled from the ground, they looked edible enough, but also withered and became inedible within days. What we now know as P. infestans, a water mold, caused the blight that swept across the country. Of course, crop failure had happened prior to the arrival of P. infestans, but this time was different. It occurred across the entire country and it continued for year after year.
The scenes were devastating. A description by one magistrate who witnessed starving families depicts the horror:
“I entered some of the hovels and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive — they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, [suffering] either from famine or from fever. Their demoniac yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain.”
Overall, the blight lasted for six years. Over 1 million men, women, and children died from starvation and disease. Another 1 million Irish emigrated to other countries with little to no other choices available to them.
Remarkably, in 2013, scientists were able to determine exactly which strain of P. infestans was responsible for the crop failures. Contrary to previous schools of thought, DNA samples extracted from preserved botanical specimens revealed that it was a previously unknown strain, HERB-1, that caused all of the destruction. It is believed that blight strain originated in Mexico in the early 19th century and eventually made its way to Europe in the 1940s. Through the use of better plant breeding techniques, potatoes were eventually bred that were resistant to HERB-1, which caused the strain to go extinct.
While it may seem unimaginable to us, such things do continue to happen in our world today. The potato blight still exists, and potato farmers employ crop protection tools to fight against it. In fact, Simplot’s Innate potato was genetically engineered to be resistant to the blight. Imagine if you told those Irish families facing disease, starvation, and death that we could give them potatoes that would not wilt and die, even if they came into contact with the disease ruining their crops. Sure, they might not exactly understand what we meant by our scientific explanations, but I’m sure the preference would be for the technology over listening to their children scream at night from hunger.
Still today, we have people who are food insecure, farmers struggling to protect their crops from pests, and children suffering from diseases. We have the tools, the science, and technology to address these problems, but we have to have the opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, while these problems seem so far removed from our dinner tables, people tend to buy into messages that disparage and hinder our ability to find solutions.
We need the naysayers to get out of the way so those solutions have a chance to work.
For a very good source and read about the Irish Potato Famine, please visit The History Place.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.