What many may not know is that there are important lessons to be learned from it --- because, you see, the Potato Famines in general, and the Irish Potato Famine in particular, are classic examples of the dangers of monoculture and dependence on a single food source, and the importance of biodiversity.
Although overwhelming blame for the Irish Potato Famine can be laid at the feet of British colonialism and the landlord-tenant system, its initial emergence and severity were consequences of monoculture --- in particular, overreliance on a single food source (potatoes) and lack of genetic variation in that food source:
Today, evolutionary theory tells us that relying on crops with low genetic variation can lead to disaster. Heeding the warnings of scientists and history may help us prevent wide-scale crop devastation due to changing environmental conditions.
Now, it is one thing for a season (or several seasons) of a crop to be lost, due to pestilence, drought, whatever. In fact, such loss is simply a given; it happens all the time.
If, however, that crop comprises a primary food source, its loss becomes problematic.
And if there is no genetic diversity in that crop and no access to other food sources, then famine is a very real possibility, especially given the right political, social and economic factors. And, as recent history has shown us, those right factors are all too common.
The blight which began the Irish Potato Famine was neither an unusual nor isolated event. Previous potato crops had been lost and famine had occurred before in Ireland. Besides, the same blight affected much of Europe, but most areas fared better, not only because of more favorable soils and climate, and more functional governmental and trade systems, but because a diversity of crops were available.
The other crops of Ireland, however, were exported by the British and the landlords, and the people who actually grew those crops were substantially dependent on the potato. Their landholdings were often small so, unlike today when we know about squarefoot and lasagna gardening, potatoes became the crop of choice to feed families.
And not just the potato: the lumper potato. The problem:
The genetically identical lumpers were all susceptible to a rot caused by Phytophthora infestans, which turns non-resistant potatoes to inedible slime.
The result: one to one and one half million dead from starvation, typhus, dysentery, cholera and other diseases.
First hand accounts, like the following from the magistrate of Cork, Nicholas Cummins, paint a desperate picture:
"I entered some of the hovels," he wrote, "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." [...]
In some cabins, the dead remained for days or weeks among the living who were too weak to move the bodies outside.
But it can't happen here
I wish I had your confidence.
But --- not to go TEOTWAWKI or anything --- I wouldn't be so confident, especially with changing climate, an endangered water supply, consolidation of seed and livestock suppliers, and loss of extraordinary biodiversity in the last 100 years alone.
Consider this: in 2001, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization stated that two breeds of farm animals disappear each week, and 1,350 breeds face extinction. They further note:
... over time 10,000 plant species were used for human food and agriculture. Now no more than 120 cultivated species provide 90 percent of human food supplied by plants.
More than 90 percent of the agricultural diversity that existed at the start of the 20th century has been lost.
Given the expected doubling of food needs in the next three decades as the world's population grows, biodiversity will be essential to food security, the FAO says.
And as our food supply becomes more corporatized, biodiversity becomes even more threatened. Michael Greger, M.D., Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States notes that as of 2000, more than 95% of the poultry breeds in the world were supplied by only four turkey breeding companies, five egg-laying chicken breeders, and five broiler breeder companies.
This erosion of biodiversity has human public health consequences. The American Association of Swine Veterinarians has explained why the genetic bottlenecking created by narrowly focused breeding schemes may be a main reason for the mounting concern over human zoonotic diseases. "As genetic improvement falls into the hands of fewer companies and the trend towards intense multiplication of a limited range of genotypes (monoculture, cloning) develops, there is mounting concern that large populations may have increasingly uniform vulnerability to particular pathogens." This is the risk posed by any type of agricultural mono-cropping.
We can learn from past mistakes. In the early 1970s, for example, the U.S. corn industry developed "Tcms" corn, a highly profitable strain adapted for large-scale farming. Only after 85% of the nation’s seed corn acreage was covered with the new variety did the industry realize that the strain also happened to be particularly susceptible to a rare form of leaf blight fungus that then wiped out areas of the U.S. corn belt.
In the 1800's, our cotton crops were decimated by the boll weevil. When our corn crops were destroyed, we had to turn to Mexico for new varieties to plant. And, during the 1980's, a new pest infested California vinyards.
All due to monoculture. Because, you see:
The rapid replacement of numerous locally adapted varieties with one or two high-yielding strains in large contiguous areas would result in the spread of serious diseases capable of wiping out entire crops, as happened prior to the Irish potato famine of 1854 and the Bengal rice famine in 1942.
Let's Talk about Extinction
Extinctions are irreversible. When a species or variety goes extinct, it is gone, evolution notwithstanding. True, it might reemerge in a billion or so years. But that's kind of meaningless for now, isn't it?
And plant species, including both native and agricultural plants, are just as vulnerable as animal species. Consider this:
If present trends continue, scientists warn, two-thirds of the world’s 300,000 plant species will disappear by the end of the next century.
In the United States alone, one out of every three plants is in danger of extinction. This includes:
14 percent of rose species, 32 percent of lilies, 32 percent of irises, 14 percent of cherry species and 29 percent of palms [and} Coniferous trees as a group
The extinction or disappearance of one species in an ecosystem can create a domino effect, as cohesive systems are composed of critters which are dependent on one another. And if other critters are specialized for the species which disappears, then they, too, become endangered and possibly disappear, either from that unique ecosystem --- or from everywhere.
Oh, so what? Things go extinct - why should we worry?
Now, bear in mind that famine itself does not generally arise from a simple lack of food or loss of a single species, but from numerous factors, including political and economic policies, weather conditions, like drought and El Ninos, and overpopulation.
However, at this point in time, we're looking at a collision of factors, including changing weather patterns due to global warming, high population levels, movement toward monopolization of our seed, livestock and food supplies by a very few corporations, and an agricultural system based on a rapidly diminishing resource - petroleum. The effects of each are extremely problematic. In combination, however, they spell potential disaster.
- In the Great Plains, there is already a water shortage and the number of farmers has already decreased, due to lessening moisture, agribusiness and a shift from crops to livestock operations.
- The shift from crops to livestock isn't just occurring in the United States. Today, grazing occupies 26 percent of the Earth's terrestrial surface, and feed-crop production requires about a third of all arable land [...] In the Amazon basin alone, about 70 percent of previously forested land is used as pasture, while feed crops cover a large part of the remainder.
- At this time, 1.4 billion people live in water stressed areas, and in a few decades, even greater problems with flooding, drought and lack of drinkable water are anticipated. This will create climate refugees and patterns of migration to areas with food and water supplies --- not to mention, dry land and reasonable coastlines.
- Our aquifirs are already running low and, in combination with changing rain patterns (greater rainfall in some areas and desertification in others), agricultural catastrophe is likely unless we begin now to anticipate such shifts now.
And this is far from a comprehensive list of factors which put us in jeopardy.
We are not wholly powerless and in fact, there are concrete things each of us can do. Perhaps the most important is to support a diversified food supply with your pocketbook. You can do this a number of ways.
- Support the ability of local farmers and critter keepers to maintain and acquire diverse plant and critter stock.
That means being open to actually trying new varieties of fruits and vegetables offered at your farmer's market and coops. That means knowing who in your area raises heritage chicken and turkey breeds, and buying their eggs and critters.
- Cut down on the amount of meat you eat and stop buying meat products from CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations).
You don't have to quit eating meat. But you don't really need it at every meal. Consider switching to using it as a flavoring in soups and stews, and only having a big hunk of it every few days. And buy the best meat you can --- that factory farmed stuff is not only unbelievably nasty, it poses very real threats to our health, both now and in the future. Manure runoff is poisoning our waterways and groundwater, and our very soil is suffering from - well, from too much shit.
- Don't eat at McDonald's and other multinational fast food joints. They're a big reason we're losing so much forest and arable land to livestock operations.
And there are things to do beyond your choices in food.
- Save seeds.
If you're an avid gardener or wannabe farmer (like me), buy your seeds from companies who are committed to maintaining biodiversity. That means avoiding seed companies owned by corporations like Monsanto, who are busily moving toward monopolization of our seed supplies, and asking companies which distribute seed from Seminis (owned by Monsanto) which of their seeds are Seminis and which aren't.
I personally like to buy my seeds from J. L. Hudson, Renee's Garden (which is Renee Shepherd's new company), NoThyme and a few other places. In fact, it's pretty easy to avoid corporate seed --- but you have to look around.
You can find and check the quality of a seed supplier at The Garden Watchdog --- I never buy from a new company without running them through Garden Watchdog. And I've found all kinds of unique little suppliers through them.
And don't be afraid to try unusual and exotic varieties. So something fails --- well, gee, now you know. And hopefully, you hung onto some of the seeds, which you'll either save or pass onto someone else - or both.
Which brings me to ...
- Buy a copy of The Seed Starter's Handbook by Nancy Bubel. Halcyon suggested it to me some months ago, and it's great. It gives very basic instructions on how to save seeds, test germination rates and more.
But what if you're not a farmer or a gardener and don't even believe catastrophe looms? I say ...
- Save seeds anyway!
And when you're positively ancient and one day suddenly disintegrate into a tiny pile of dust, your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will, at first, giggle ... then plant that tin of ancient seeds for plants they've never even heard of. And some of them will grow. And the world will welcome the return of a little more biodiversity, all as a result of your forethought.
Okay, a big one:
- Plant trees native to your area.
In a word: screw Bradford pears. Find out what trees are native to your area and plant them.
Hunt down dKossian Land of Enchantment and either read his VMD or ask him about tree planting --- or both!
Me, I just planted some crab apple trees, and have some pecan and hickory trees in pots waiting to go in, come fall. Sure, I could plant some fast growing, non-native variety --- but I would rather contribute to the health of my little ecological niche here than have the satisfaction of a tree that reaches 80 feet in four years, then falls over the first time A Big Wind blows through.
- Find out about invasives and start battling them.
Here's a great set of links which can help you figure out what's native to your area and which trees and plants are posing the greatest dangers.
Invasives are big trouble.
And finally ...
Especially if you live in your own home.
Hm. Composting recipes may be a good idea for a future What's For Dinner?