St. Patrick’s Day reminds me of the Emerald Isle’s fantastic contributions to comfort food – corned beef, shepherd’s pie, Irish soda bread, and the Guiness Ice Cream Float, to name a few. But we should also be reminded of the tragic food event that sent the massive wave of Irish immigrants to the U.S. – the Irish Potato Famine. It’s a tale of caution and warning emphasizing the importance of food diversity. It teaches us that man cannot live on potatoes alone – or at least one genetic variety of them.
Between 1845 and 1852 over one million unfortunate Irish peasants died of starvation and another million picked up and left for fuller bellies. While there was a host of political and social factors leading up to this tragedy, the bottom line is that 3 million Irish people became dependent on one single strain of potato. That’s a precarious situation for sure.
The potato was actually first cultivated in 5000 BC in South America, and crossed the Atlantic on the ships of the Spanish conquistadores, reaching Europe by 1570. After a lukewarm reception, European nobility soon realized potatoes were easier to cultivate than wheat, and their high caloric content could sustain 10 people on an acre. Now centuries later, this high caloric content of the fried potato would plague us in quite the opposite way, helping to create the American Obesity Epidemic, but I digress. In Ireland, the potato quickly replaced a more diverse agricultural landscape as peasants sought to live off of smaller and smaller plots of land. That’s where the politics of English rule came in, but again, I digress.
What happened to cause the Famine was a potato blight called Photothora infestans, a fungus which caused the potato plants to wither and blacken, while the tubers rotted in the soil. This first wave of this fungus came in 1845 causing massive crop failures and by 1846 there were hardly any seed potatoes left to plant. There was no backup crop to convert to and the results were tragic.
A similar thing happened to the grape crops here in Cincinnati in the early 1860s. Cincinnati, with its east facing hillsides was on track to become America’s wine country. With Catawba and Isabella varieties of grapes being grown on both sides of the Ohio River by German immigrants, largely funded by millionaire Nicholas Longworth, a fungus called phyloxera, caused black rot of the vines. These vineyard workers tried sulfuring the vines to stop the blight, but what was needed was a rot-resistant strain of plant. It is said that on his deathbed, Nicholas Longworth called out to his son-in-law, William Flagg, his right hand vineyard man, that he had found a rot resistant Catawba strain, and then he died. By the end of the Civil War, the vineyards in Cincinnati had been decimated, and Nicholas Longworth’s French winehouse overseers moved to California to found their industry. The Longworth Winehouse was rented to a beer brewery, and then converted into a Cottonseed Oil Factory, and finally, paved over by Interstate 75. The former vineyards were sold to developers by Nicholas’ son Joseph Longworth, and the east side neighborhoods of Cincinnati were formed. Lack of crop diversity prevented us from achieving Sonoma Wine Country status. But then Beer was king in Cincinnati – and thank Gambrinus there was not a hop or barley rot.
Cincinnati’s Horticultural Society in the 1850s, who were able to breed good strawberries, but not able to find a black rot resistant Catawba or Isabella grape variety.
Costa Rica’s banana industry nearly went bankrupt after fusarium oxysporum destroyed thousands of hectacres of one strain of banana in the 1930s. Failing to diversify, the same blight threated the industry in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s. If bananas taste different to you than they did as a child, you are tasting different strands of bananas because of this fungal pest.
The U.S. Corn Industry faced a leaf blight in the 1970s with their monocultured high-yield hybrids, costing billions and driving prices way up.
But store yield and big box business has driven this monoculture, threatening to eradicate certain crops or even drive prices higher to the consumer. And ok, we in the U.S. are not dependent on one variety of potato like the Irish were. But, we can certainly be affected by the less nutritious monocultured agriculture that can threaten health, economics, and jobs.
The lesson is that the DNA technology that puts the world at risk to develop shelf stable, high yield (and as a result, blander tasting) products, can help us to diversify and create healthier, tastier products that are resistant to blight and disease. Using breeding is a type of DNA manipulation that farmers have followed since the dawn of the earliest paleo-agriculture. It’s a way of doing things naturally that can happen, rather than ‘test-tubing’ a feature that couldn’t happen in nature without manipulation.
An example of successful new breeding is the Honeynut squash. It’s a new variety of butternut squash that’s half the size of the current breed. Developed by Cornell plant breeder Michael Mazourek, it promises twice the flavor and nutrients in a smaller size. Look for it on menus and in farmers markets this year . Maybe Chef Jose Salazar will find a way to integrate it into his fabulous repertoire. Scientists are teaming up with more and more chefs to develop breeds that are more efficient and taste better. Other coming attractions are the Habanada pepper that’s all sweet and no heat; the Kossak kohlrabi – a thick skinned, soccer ball sized version; and Piraciacaba – a thick, multiheaded broccoli that can withstand high heat and mild enough to snack on in the raw.
If you celebrate St. Patty’s Day today, also give a nod and a toast to the lesson our Irish forefathers gave us – to keep our agriculture diversified.