Potatoes still a major staple of diets
Pommes de terre frites à cru, en petites tranches — Potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small slices.
French fries. Whether or not they were actually invented in France — the Belgians strongly contest the point — this recipe from Thomas Jefferson’s memoirs seems to be their first mention in the States.
America produces some 47 million tons of potatoes per year. Excluding exports, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2007 that works out to a yearly use of 128 pounds of potatoes per American: 43 percent in frozen potatoes (primarily French fries), 33 percent fresh potatoes, 13 percent potato chips and 11 percent dehydrated products.
Seems a lot, and yet we produce less than half of India’s annual crop and just 20 percent of China’s. Pretty impressive for an enlarged underground stem (not a root!) from the south Peruvian Andes.
Europe’s first awareness of the tuber followed on Francisco Pizarro’s successful conquest of the Incan Empire in 1536. Although a principal staple of the Incas, the Spaniards initially refused to eat it because the rest of the plant is quite poisonous.
Still, by the second half of the 16th century, the potato had made its way from the western coast of Spain throughout much of northern Europe, although the “devil’s apple” remained widely distrusted … until necessity forced the issue.
The Great Famine of France of 1693-4 killed 1.3-1.5 million people. Elsewhere in that decade, famines took a third of Finland’s population, a fifth in Estonia and Latvia and 5-10 percent of Scotland’s population. In the following decades, mass deaths by starvation were commonplace events — aided by war, disease and crop failures — across the continent. East Prussia alone lost 250.000, 41 percent of its population, to plague and starvation in 1709.
The Irish Famine of 1741 is worth considering. Preceding the Great Famine of 1845-52 by a hundred years, it is estimated to have killed 20-38 percent of the country’s population of 2.4 million. After a decade of relatively mild winters, Europe had been hit with two years of extreme cold and rainy weather, leading to failed grain and potato harvests and shortages of milk. The Great Famine would stem from a different source.
Although Ireland had been conquered by the English in the 12th century, England’s control had effectively lapsed by 1500. Determined to retake control of the island, England’s Henry VIII had himself declared King of Ireland in 1542, initiating the 60-year Tudor Conquest of Ireland.
Though Henry had turned England Protestant, Ireland remained staunchly Catholic. After his death, Queen Mary returned England to Catholicism, but five years later, Elizabeth I sent the pendulum swinging back to Protestantism (for which Pope Pius V declared her a heretic). Throughout, various Irish Earls rebelled, winning a few battles, losing more, and English rule pretty well solidified under James I around 1607.
Lots more, of course, but here’s the thing. Except for Queen Mary’s five-year reign, from Henry VIII on for the next 300 years, things went from bad to worse to much worse for the majority Catholic population of Ireland. Under the Plantation Policy established under Henry VIII, most of the landed gentry eventually lost their feudal estates to the English Crown, which replaced them with “planters” (colonists) from Great Britain.
By the early 1800s, desperately poor peasants and city-dwellers found themselves on the edge of catastrophe. An 1846 Royal Commission on the situation reported, “It would be impossible adequately to describe the privations which (the Irish laborer and his family) habitually and silently endure… in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water. …”
As it happens, that potato was almost always a variety known as the Irish lumper, a strain well adapted to the island’s variable climate, but not at all to Phytophthora infestans, an odd fungus-like micro-organism that is not a fungus (but is a distant the cousin of brown algae). Originating in the Toluca Valley of Central Mexico as a pest of wild potatoes and tomatoes, it apparently added domestic potatoes to its resume around 1840.
The first record of “late blight” devastation to potato crops — P. infestans can destroy a healthy field in just one week — came from the area around Philadelphia in 1843. Within two years, much of northern and central Europe was under siege, but Ireland had it the worst.
Potatoes generally are propagated by tuber cuttings rather than by seed, allowing the disease to be readily transmitted from crop to crop. The fact almost all Irish potatoes were of the highly susceptible lumper variety made life that much easier for the blight.
And so … the Great Hunger.
An 1841 census recorded an Irish population of 8.2 million. Normal growth should have led to slightly more than 9 million in 10 years. The 1851 census reported less than 6.6 million.
Late blight remains with us today as a major disease of potatoes and tomatoes, with world crop damage estimated at some $6 billion per year. And I haven’t even gotten to the Colorado potato beetle. Some other time, perhaps.
Ken Baker is a scientist and a retired biology professor. If you have a natural history topic you’d like the author to consider for an upcoming column, email your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.