Potato Blight

(This column was first published in the August 11, 1997 Buffalo News.)

   Across all of Ireland in that August of 1845 there were row upon row of lovely green plants, their root tubers rapidly swelling into the nutritious potatoes that formed not just the peasants' staple diet but virtually all of their food.  Seven to fifteen pounds of potatoes were eaten by every individual each day.  With a little buttermilk added this bland regimen provided adequate protein, carbohydrates and minerals, as well as Vitamins A, B and C.  Only rarely was it supplemented with fish or meat.

   Then suddenly everything changed.  Within a week the leaves of those potato plants turned black, their stalks wilted, their roots rotted underground.  A terrible stench arose from the fields.

   Just that quickly began the potato blight that was to decimate the Irish population.  A third of the crop was lost that fall; in each of the following two years three-fourths failed.  As a result, within a decade over a million men, women and children would die of starvation or from the fevers, plagues, scurvy and dysentery that racked their weakened bodies.  Evicted from their lands, their homes destroyed so that they could not "sneak back," another two million would emigrate to the United States, Canada or Australia, many in leaky vessels aptly called coffin ships.  John Millington Synge said that for many the choice was among "America, the workhouse and the madhouse," and for those who stayed, in Edith Martin's words, the famine "ran like melted ice into the veins of Ireland."

   The response to this tragic situation by many politicians and journalists and even church leaders remains a blot on British history.  The potato, according to English public opinion at the time, had provided such an abundance of food for so little skill and effort that it had encouraged "laziness, indifference and ineptitude."  Others with racist and anti-Catholic biases believed that the famine was God's will, a response to "Potato, Paddy and Popery."  But even those who tried to help the ill and starving were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers.

   Two facts make this horrific episode more than a poignant and embarrassing memory: (1) Today the potato is America's No. 1 fresh vegetable, equaling in consumption its next three contenders -- lettuce, onions and carrots -- combined.
(2) New and even more virulent forms of the fungus that led to the Irish famine are attacking potatoes (and tomatoes as well) world-wide.  An estimated three billion dollars of the world's potato crops are being destroyed each year, a significant part of this in the United States.  In 1994, for example, a single New York State farmer lost a million dollar potato crop.

   For many years a pesticide called metalaxyl controlled the fungus, but the new strains are not deterred by this or even by less environmentally acceptable fungicide alternatives.

   To battle this powerful foe, pathologists, geneticists and plant breeders at the Beltsville, Maryland Agricultural Research Station Vegetable Laboratory are working in cooperation with colleagues around the world.  They found a potato strain in Toluca Valley, Mexico that is resistant to what has come to be known as late blight.  However, this variety of irregularly shaped potatoes simply cannot be used for our tremendously popular chips and fries.  For that reason cooperating institutions across the country (including Cornell in New York State) have been testing hybrids against the fungus under Beltsville supervision.  This requires great care as failure to maintain the fungus quarantine can wipe out all crops near the test area.

   Fortunately some of these hybrid strains are showing signs of success: one named J103K7 produced 20 tons of potatoes per acre in Wisconsin even without pesticide spraying.  Once again researchers appear to be heading off the villain at the pass.

Literature Examined in the Preparation of this Column

Cooke, Linda. ěHybrid Potatoes Survive Blight.î Agricultural Research 45 (5 1997): 13.

Edwards, R. Dudley and T. Desmond Williams, ed. The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-52. 1st United States edition; original 1956 in Dublin by Browne and Nolan, Ltd. ed., New York: New York University Press, 1957.

Kerr, Donal A. ëA Nation of Beggarsí? Priests, People, and Politics in Famine Ireland 1846-1852. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Kinealy, Christine. This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52. Dublin, Ireland: Gill &Macmillan Ltd., 1994.

Mokyr, Joel. Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850. London, England: George Allen & Unwin, 1983.

OíFlaherty, Liam. Famine. New York: Random House, 1937.

Percival, John. The Great Famine: Irelandís Potato Famine 1845-51. New York: TV Books, Inc., 1995.

Poirteir, Cathal, ed. The Great Irish Famine. The Thomas Davis Lecture Series. Dublin, Ireland: Mercier Press, 1995.

Stanley, Doris. ěPotatoes: Once Again, Under Fungal Attack.î Agricultural Research 45 (5 1997): 10-14.

Trollope, Anthony. Castle Richmond. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1860.

Trollope, Anthony. The Irish Famine: Six Letters to the Examiner 1849/1850. Trollopeana, ed. Lance O. Tingay. London: The Silverbridge Press, 1987.