The potato – the demise

‘The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the path of man’s history and culture seems influenced by the vagaries of chance. The far-reaching ramifications of any act are seldom apparent, even to the wisest man and most prescient people. Hairpin twists and turns in the evolution of a nation or a people may hinge on the most untoward or seemingly innocuous of words, actions or objects. Only time gives us any perspective. Witness the potato. What Spanish soldier-storyteller of the 1500s’ (Raleigh?) could have begun to concoct a tale of how some insignificant small, knobby roots grown by the Incas in the Andean high sierra that he brought back in a boat to the ‘Old world’ would someday become the most popular vegetable in the world’?  – Ref: The Potato Garden by Maggie Oster. The potato became the main stay of a large proportion of Irish people. It was used to slice, and dice the farms, leading to a life a misery, starvation, death, mass emigration of its people and made millions of pounds for English, Scottish and Welsh Landlords and their agents.

Man had tools for more than a million years, but his crop plants have evolved under the influence of observation selection and imagination starting with the Neolithic people. While some crops such as maize would have not survived without man’s intervention, however man’s survival is equally dependent on his crops. Both Crops and man have evolved in a kind of symbiosis. As Darlington (1969) put it in ‘The Silent Millennia’ “during the expansion of Agriculture the men themselves were transformed by new relations with the plant and animal which they themselves were in the process of establishing”. Of the 200,000 wild plants species, only a few thousand are eaten by humans, and just a few hundred of these have been domesticated. Even of these crops, most provide just minor supplements to our diet and would not by themselves have sufficed to support the rise of civilization.  To-day only nine crops contribute more than two thirds of the human food dry-matter, half the protein and fibre, and one quarter of the oil and fat of the world’s population diet. Wheat and barley provide 25% and potatoes 4% of the total human food. Rice, maize, sorghum/millet supply a further 38%, while milk and meat supply just 6% of the food dry matter and 14% of the protein.

The potato plant (Solanum tuberosum) is a member of the Solanaceae, or nightshade family, a family of flowering plants that also includes the eggplant, mandrake, deadly nightshade or belladonna, tobacco, tomato, and petunia. Its starchy tubers (stem thickened for use as a storage organ).  The potato originated in the Andes, likely somewhere in present-day Peru or Bolivia, and spread to the rest of the world after European contact with the Americas in the late 1400s and early 1500s. Being easy to grow and having excellent nutritional value, it became the major staple crop for the world’s population. It was brought to Ireland, in 1565, according to one story. Another has it that Sir Walter Raleigh brought it back from South America and first grew it in Youghal in 1585. Either way, it eventually became a national mainstay in the Native Irish diet. At last Ireland had a human food crop that was very suitable to its climate and soil type. It could be stored without drying – just an acre would provide sufficient carbohydrates for a family for the autumn, winter and spring seasons. Sir William Petty asserts in a report of 1685 on Ireland “that for ten months of the year from August till May, potatoes and milk were the staple food everywhere, oatmeal being only used to fill up the interval when the tuber was not available”. Raised beds, which were initiated by Irish peasant farmers, insured a good crop even on wet land. The landlord and his agent took advantage of this new crop. No doubt the Boyle, Fitzgerald, Butler and the Burke landlords were soon growing potatoes on their estates and were the main promoters of the crop through-out Ireland.  The landlord’s Agent was now able to rent out land in smaller lots for exorbitant rent to their estate workers and to the native Irish tenant farmers for potato growing. If a tenant complained about rent, he was evicted and a new tenant put in his place. Little were the natives to realise as the Irish population rose from 500,000 in the year 1600 to more than 8 million 250 years later that it would all end in tears, when  ‘The 1840s’ Potato Famine’ hit, costing millions of lives misery, death or exile.

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