One of the reasons that potato cultivation was so widespread in Ireland was
that it could be grown virtually anywhere under the "lazybed" technique,
versions of which were employed by the Incas and are widely in use today.
Just place the tubers on peat, manure or whatever, dig a drainage trench on
either side while covering the tubers, and wait until harvest. Grains could
not have been cultivated in most of the places where potatos thrived, and
the peasants who grew most of the potatos for subsistence did not have
access to the more arable land. For a vivid account of this, see Henry
Hobhouse, _Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind_ (NY:
Harper & Row, 1986). I'm sure there are better accounts.
On the question of genetic diversity (raised in another posting), the
genetic stock for Irish potatoes apparently originated in the tropical
Andes, and was introduced to Europe ca. 1580. Early potatos produced poorly
in Europe because they were adapted to a more tropical photoperiod. Before
they were suited for cultivation in Ireland they underwent some 250 years of
human and natural selection as garden curiosities whereby they were allowed
to reproduce sexually (a practice uncommon in commercial or subsistence
production). The potato blight was introduced later (ca. 1830?), possibly
from Chile, where races of resistant subspecies were cultivated (the higher
elevation races of the tropical subspecies have also shown resistance). All
the European potatoes proved vulnerable to the blight. Resistant strains
were developed during the latter half of the century. The relatively narrow
gene pool of the European potatos, the practice of propagation by tuber, the
cool moist climate of Ireland, made for particularly vulnerable conditions.
This information is drawn from Jonathan Sauer, _Historical Geography of Crop
Plants: A Select Roster_ (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 1993).
>2. If organic agriculture grew out of a reaction to the increased use of
>agricultural chemicals in production systems, why can the description of
>"organic" be applied to any system that relies on non-synthetic inputs?
>3. Wasn't the Irish potato famine really an example of unsustainable
I don't think such generalizations are in order here. There are other
important social aspects to the story that haven't even been mentioned. The
relation of peasants to "lords" and the colonial relation of Ireland and
England. It does seem, however, that we have the knowledge and the genetic
diversity (without the herbicides) to avoid such crop failures today.
>4. Wouldn't Bill Duesing make a great neighbor? I think so.
But he lives in Connecticut!
Lance F. Howard
Department of History and Geography
Clemson, SC 29634
(864) 656-5359 (office)
(864) 656-1015 (fax)