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How the Irish Potato Famine Grew Into Food Sustainability

After acquiring a masters degree in sustainability, Sustainable Sue worked & now writes to help create change in U.S. business practices.

White potatoes are often called "Irish potatoes" to distinguish them from the sweet potato.

White potatoes are often called "Irish potatoes" to distinguish them from the sweet potato.

Did you know that potatoes are not native to Ireland? They did save Ireland from famine at one point, so Ireland adopted them—though only one kind of potato—which eventually depleted the soils of the nutrients it needed and produced another famine.

Then the country went sustainable and started utilizing its own natural resources—grasslands. Now the economy and its people are thriving. The potato's still there, but they're not dependent on it now. How did all that happen?

With my years' long interest in sustainability and a masters degree in sustainable development, as well as awareness of the multiple products that the Americas provided the world (why the "Irish" potato?), I determined to find some answers.

Ireland's Main Economic Resource—Grass

According to Wikipedia, "Ireland's main economic resource is its large fertile pastures." English colonizers and wealthy Irish landowners recognized it early on. The bought up land to raise beef and dairy cows for shipment to England (and elsewhere), hired local landlords, and rented farmland to Irish smallholders for impossibly high rates—usually in exchange for labor. If the smallholder couldn't meet the rent, they were pushed off the land. On marginal lands that were left, the Irish croppers grew subsistence crops––first barley, then potatoes––both of which eventually gave out.

In 1922 Ireland got its own government that insisted on redistributing ownership of the land. Over time it also started thinking in terms of sustainability and carbon footprint. Recognizing that barley and potatoes both depleted Ireland's soils, whereas the country's natural grasses built them, the government started retraining and supporting farmers in developing more sustainable farming practices.

80% of Farmland is Dedicated to Grass

80% of Farmland is Dedicated to Grass

Bord Bia Takes the Country Sustainable

In 2009 Bord Bia, the Irish agricultural trade board headquartered in Dublin, took a survey of the European countries to which they exported food to discover how those countries viewed Ireland's food trade. As expected, they found that Europe saw Ireland as a primarily "green" country supplying them with fairly healthy food.

Bord Bia decided to up the ante. They had heard the predictions that the world would soon run out of food. They also took seriously warnings about climate change, and the need to cut back on carbon dioxide and methane production.

Bord Bia decided to heed both of those warnings by enabling more efficient production of high-quality meat, and other food and drinks, both for its own populace and for export to Europe, the Middle East, and China. They developed a unique government program called "Origin Green" to make their entire food and drinks industry sustainable—currently the only such program in the world.

Sustainability and Subsistence Are Not the Same

Sustainability is a method of production that allows for a country's natural resources to be sustained over time, so they are available to future harvesters; and so nothing is used up or defaced to the point that it can't replenish itself and continue to exist. The definition has grown to include other things too, like the health and well-being of workers, their families and communities, and efficient financial management to also sustain human life and culture.

This is different from subsistence. Sustainability implies an egalitarian sort of thriving of the earth and all of its inhabitants, including humans. Subsistence is just barely making it. And that's how the majority of Ireland lived for hundreds of years.

In early Ireland humans were divided into classes, with the peasants and laborers being the lowest classes. This class subsisted on foods grown from marginal lands, like barley and potatoes, while the upper classes and foreigners owned most of the land and exported what they produced.

Potato fields spread across marginal lands, providing food for the peasants. Grasslands were used by English absentee landlords to raise beef, dairy cows, and sheep for export to England.

Potato fields spread across marginal lands, providing food for the peasants. Grasslands were used by English absentee landlords to raise beef, dairy cows, and sheep for export to England.

With the advent of Origin Green, Ireland committed to helping farmers make grasslands the country's primary natural resource, with grass-fed meats and dairy products its primary food export. The production of potatoes was downsized in favor of what grows naturally in Ireland.

In addition to creating healthy soil, Ireland's grasses are great for feeding healthy cattle, dairy cows, and sheep, and don't require constant plowing and planting. With sustainable practices and land ownership, Ireland's farmers are now both feeding themselves and expanding their food exports to a growing, hungry world.

This doesn't mean Ireland has completely dumped the potato, since the potato is a staple of their national cuisine. However, Origin Green changed the country's focus to producing healthy, sustainable foods indigenous to Ireland's environment, which the potato is not.

The Origin of the Potato

Potatoes came originally from South America. There they were grown high in the Andes Mountains by the Inca people, who cultivated them from wild potatoes 7,000-10,000 years ago. Potatoes are one of the crops the Aztecs experimented with on Machu Picchu, growing them at different heights with different amounts of water and degrees of temperature, to see what would happen. They produced hundreds of different kinds of potatoes.

There are nearly 4,000 varieties of potato now in existence, 99% of which can be traced directly back to early Chilean and Peruvian wild potatoes.

There are nearly 4,000 varieties of potato now in existence, 99% of which can be traced directly back to early Chilean and Peruvian wild potatoes.

History of Potatoes in Ireland

How did potatoes get from South America to Ireland? In the mid-1500's Spanish conquistadors didn't just take gold and silver from the Incas and other ancient Americans. They took everything of interest they could find, including food. They took chocolate, peanuts, tomatoes, peppers, beans, corn—and potatoes. They shipped great loads of them from the Americas to Europe, currying favor with royalty, trying to get them to experiment with these exotic foods and maybe even grow them, if only to feed the military. Some European countries did, but the potato was generally spurned. Because it came from under the ground, it was considered food for the lowly.

Ireland was a grower of barley in those days—a grain originally imported from the Middle East. Barley provided grain for cereals, breads, and especially liquor. Ireland is still known for its Irish whiskey, beer (Guinness), and liqueurs (Bailey's Irish Cream).

But then Ireland had a famine. As often happens when growing imported foods, soils were not adequate to sustain production over the years, and local predators could not control the insects and viruses that attacked the crop. Barley went belly up and people went hungry. What saved the people from starvation was potatoes.

This popular Irish dish called "Boxty" consists of grass-fed beef wrapped up in a potato pancake.

This popular Irish dish called "Boxty" consists of grass-fed beef wrapped up in a potato pancake.

The Emergence of the Irish Potato

Potatoes were a savior crop. They liked cold, hard winters and summers with long hours of sunlight, which Ireland had. Barley's destructive insects were uninterested in eating potatoes.

There were lots of different ways potatoes could be cooked. They replaced barley in favorite dishes and then new dishes were developed especially for potatoes: Potato pies, breads, pancakes, soups, fried and boiled potatoes, apple potato bread ( a dessert), even vodka.

Although potatoes could not be exported easily, some of the products made from them could be—like alcohol and potato chips or crisps. Potatoes quickly grew to be Ireland's new staple crop.

The disease "late blight" ruins potatoes for eating. Irish Lumper was especially vulnerable to this disease, and was primarily responsible for the "Great Irish Famine" in 1846-48.

The disease "late blight" ruins potatoes for eating. Irish Lumper was especially vulnerable to this disease, and was primarily responsible for the "Great Irish Famine" in 1846-48.

Potatoes and the Great Irish Famine

In 1845 the same thing happened with potatoes that had happened with barley. Because only a few varieties of potato were shipped to Europe from the Andes, there was not enough genetic diversity to keep them healthy, so they succumbed to disease. The Irish Lumpur, a prolific grower, used as much for feeding stock as it was for the average Irish cropper's family, was especially vulnerable to a fungus infestation called "late blight," accidentally imported from Europe.

The disease spread quickly through the potato fields of Western Ireland and beyond, resulting in the "Great Irish Famine." Two fifths of the population had become totally dependent on potatoes—mostly the peasant and laborer classes—and suddenly they had nothing to eat.

Absentee landowners ignored their plight, continuing to export beef, dairy, and other food from Ireland to England and beyond, instead of feeding the Irish people. Because only 616 landlords owned 80% of Ireland's land then, local people had no control over what was grown there or who the land fed.

England's Land Grab

The government of England set up food and public works programs to help for a few months, but then used it to get control of more land. They refused benefits to all farmers who owned more than 1/4 acre of land, so peasants had to sell whatever they had left, in order to eat or work. Absentee English landowners and bureaucrats waited, ready and willing to snap it up. The map below shows land ownership in 1450. By 1845 it looked much worse.

At least two million people emigrated. Over one million people died. The island lost almost a quarter of its population. Some called the famine genocide. I call it a land grab. By 1870 only 3% of Irish owned land. 97% were tenants on somebody else's land. It made England, as the governing country, look really bad.

Map of Ireland—1450 Land Ownership

1450 map or Ireland showing land ownership at the time. Green represents wealthy Irish landowners growing food for export to England.

1450 map or Ireland showing land ownership at the time. Green represents wealthy Irish landowners growing food for export to England.

Recovering From the Famine Paradigm

In 1879 there was another outbreak of blight, but without the disastrous results of the first one. With the world pressing for reform, England passed the Irish Land Act and then the Wyndham Act in 1903. They also set up a Land Commission to enforce the Acts, which was disbanded in the year 2000, having done its job. Now Ireland has its own government and 87% of the Irish people own their own homes and/or agricultural land.

Potatoes remained Ireland's staple crop for the lower classes, but Ireland started developing varieties of potatoes more resistant to blight (like Rocks and Champion). Over time it became clear that potatoes could not stay a major crop, if Ireland's land and people were to stay healthy.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world was becoming aware of the concept of sustainability, and how crops could thrive more easily when matched with local soil and weather conditions, especially crops and hybrids that were already indigenous. Eventually the need for agricultural sustainability grew worldwide to the point that it became an insistent prod to action.

Origin Green started out by promoting grass-fed sheep and cattle.

Origin Green started out by promoting grass-fed sheep and cattle.

Sustainability in Ireland—Origin Green

Analysis showed that Ireland's most abundant, most natural indigenous crop was grass. The country's weather was cool and rainy (when not rainy, then misty) and grassland soils were rich—giving cattle, sheep, goats, and dairy cows plenty of healthy food to eat year round. Not much was needed in the way of supplemental grains.

Ireland already had a history of exporting grass-fed meat and dairy products to their neighbors. Now that the world was waking up to how much healthier grass-fed meat was than grain-fed, and the human population was exploding globally, Ireland saw the opportunity for expanding those exports to the rest of the world.

The only question was, how could Ireland avoid the mess it was in before? If land were used primarily for exports again, would the average farmer have enough to eat? When a country exports goods in lieu of meeting needs at home, it sets itself up for disaster—a slow emptying of the glass that waters it. How could they prevent it from happening again?

Sustainable practices require that local farmers thrive, both for the physical health of families and the psychological health of communities. So Bord Bia built that concept into their paradigm, and the statistics they used, to create a sustainability program they called Origin Green. They added independent verification to make sure that all sustainability practices were adhered to, including family and community wellbeing.

Local vs. Export Markets

Most of the land in Ireland is now owner-occupied, including the 64% of the country that is agricultural (10.4 million acres)—which contains over 140,000 farms. Of that, 80% is left as grasslands to grow meat and dairy cows, according to Bord Bia.

On the non-grasslands portions farmers grow barley, potatoes, wheat, apples, cold-season vegetables, and mushrooms (in that order of prevalence). Over 50% of meat and dairy products and 92% of apples (apple juice) are exported, putting Ireland in a wee bit of an imbalance. The food and drinks industry comprises almost 10% of Ireland's exports.

To sustain the local economy, farmers are encouraged to diversify, to expand their businesses into non-traditional agricultural activities, using existing products. Apples that make juice for exporting, for example, could also make frozen apple pies for home use. Many farming communities have developed organizations to solve local problems and make decisions such as this, and there are numerous local wholesale and retail outlets already existing to help with distribution.

Ireland is also learning to balance exports and imports with the production of food for local consumption, even as export markets grow. This includes producing locally some of what Ireland is currently importing, like meat and dairy products not yet made in Ireland.

What will reduce the danger of future famines, Ireland has realized, is threefold:

  • Increasing the production of native foods for local consumption
  • Decreasing imports
  • Exporting mainly excess production

All three, together, will help the country's economy become more sustainable, and stable, as a whole.

For more information about potatoes:

  • Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent
    The potato—humble, lumpy, bland, familiar—is a decidedly unglamorous staple of the dinner table. Or is it? John Reader’s narrative on the role of the potato in world history suggests we may be underestimating this remarkable tuber.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Comments

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on March 05, 2018:

@Sue

Thanks for the link-- I'll forward the info to my friend! All the best, Cynthia

Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on February 28, 2018:

@Cynthia - I've written another article about a government program called Origin Green offered by Ireland's Bord Bia. Bord Bia has a section on organic food on their website. It includes an app to source producers of organic food in your area. Your friend can start her search there. Here's the link:

https://www.bordbia.ie/consumer/aboutfood/organicf...

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on February 22, 2018:

This is an interesting read, both as a history of the potato, and how the potato figured in Ireland's opting in to sustainable agriculture. Like masses of other Canadians, I can trace some of my gratitude to having been born in Canada to the potato famines.

I have a friend livivg in Ireland who complains about there being little access to the kinds of "health foods" she sees me promoting in my vegan recipes. Perhaps there will be-- or is-- a new flourishing of local organic groceries? Or perhaps she hasn't been looking in the right places.

All the best, Cynthia

Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on September 17, 2015:

Yes, including so much of the land being owned by Brits who wanted to grow meat for export to England, rather than domestic use in Ireland. There were a lot of factors contributing, most of them designed to benefit the upper classes. I sure hope we're not headed in that direction again with the new trade world agreements and the ever-widening income gap (at least in the U.S.).

Chuck Nugent from Tucson, Arizona on September 12, 2015:

An interesting and well written Hub.

However, it wasn't exports of food products from Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom (which Ireland was a part of at the time of the famine) that resulted in the famine and emigration of millions of Irish.

Instead, it was the Corn Laws which were high taxes on imported wheat (known as "corn" in Europe in those days). The Industrial Revolution was in full swing in England and the opportunity for relatively higher pay and somewhat better life available in cities resulted in many people leaving rural areas for cities. This loss of labor in rural areas forced landlords to compete with factories for labor which increased the cost of growing food and these increased costs forced food producers to increase prices of these products and put them at a disadvantage to cheaper grain imports from abroad. The Corn Laws put a high tax on grain imports which retailers added to the final price which resulted in their final price being equal to or greater than locally produced grains.

Poor people throughout the UK were hurt by these high prices. Due to centuries of misrule and discrimination by the British in Ireland meant that the masses in Ireland were mostly poor and forced to limit their diet to cheap and abundant potatoes. When the blight hit and destroyed the crop mass starvation resulted.

In the absence of the Corn Laws, inexpensive grain imported from abroad would have prevented the Irish Famine. So, it was not a lack of sustainable local production but the crony fascism that results from governments trying to manage economies by the use of import restrictions, subsidies and other tactics that seek to maintain the livelihood of politically connected groups at the expense of the rest of society.

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