The Irish Potato Famine – could it happen again?

Ireland wasn’t always dependent on potatoes, but in the decades leading up to the famine, more farmers started growing potatoes. As a crop, potatoes are inexpensive and high-yielding. As a food, they are packed with calories and nutrients. The Irish potato famine occurred in the mid-1800s, the result of a fungal disease. Let’s look at the scientific factors that contributed to the spread of the fungal disease, and how such a tragedy can be prevented in the future.

Ireland in the mid-1800s was very much an agricultural nation. Its approximately eight million people were among the poorest people in the Western world. Since their introduction in the 1600s, potatoes had thrived in the cool, moist soils of Ireland. Potatoes were meant to supplement a well-rounded diet of other crops, dairy, and meat products.

Sliced potato
No matter how you slice, dice, or prepare potatoes, they are packed with nutrients. In the 1800s, Irish farmers became entirely dependent upon one type of potato–the Irish Lumper. This farming practice, called monoculture, contributed to the Irish Potato Famine. Credit: Morguefile.

Due to historical and economic factors, farmers began to rely completely on the potato for their existence. An acre could yield up to 12 tons of potatoes annually. Although a working farmer could eat up to fourteen pounds of potatoes per day, one acre of potatoes was enough to feed a family of six for a year. Potatoes are rich in protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. This meant an Irish farm family could stay healthy on a diet of potatoes alone. By 1845, massive amounts of potatoes were grown in Ireland, with little attempt made to plant any other crops. Even more unfortunately, farmers were growing a potato monoculture in their fields, meaning that they were growing only one variety of crop.

The potato famine began in September 1845 as leaves on potato plants suddenly turned black and curled. The blight disease spread like lightning. A single infected potato plant could infect thousands more in just a few days. Potatoes dug out of the ground at first looked edible, but shriveled and rotted within days. The results were devastating, as starving tenant families nationwide were evicted from their lands. By 1851, an estimated 1.5 million Irish had died from the effects of the famine, with the highest death rates among children under five years of age and the elderly.

Scientists have since attributed the potato blight to a strain of the fungus Phytophthora infestans, which infects the plant through its leaves. It leaves behind shriveled, inedible tubers. It took until 2013 to correctly identify the P. infestans strain as HERB-1. Improvements in crop breeding since the 1850s have yielded resistant potato varieties, stopping the deadly infection in its tracks. Scientists believe that the HERB-1 strain is now extinct.

Just like meningitis can travel quickly through college dorms, HERB-1 spread quickly over the potato fields. With each plant being the same, there were no breaks to stop HERB-1 from infecting neighboring plants. In addition, with all fields planted with the same crop, Irish farmers were dependent on the income–and sustenance–of their only crop. When the crop failed, the farmers failed.

Fungus in soil is not unusual. In fact, bacteria, fungi, and other microbes commonly live in healthy soil. When there is a variety of plant life growing in the soil, there is usually a natural balance in this microbial community. However, a continuous planting of the same crop–in this case, Irish Lumper potatoes–can cause an imbalance in the soil microbial community. With little diversity of soil microbes, there was little resistance to fight the disease. You might be familiar with this in humans, where some doctors recommend we take probiotics to maintain balance in our gut microbes. To learn more about soil microbes, read this blog, and view this video.

Why did growers move to using only one crop–the monoculture system? In theory, cultivating a small number of crops over large areas improves efficiency. Farmers need only buy one type of seed, and store one type of crop. Crop management might all be the same. With more efficient farms came increased profitability to a business that involves countless hours of difficult, physical labor.

While it increased efficiency and helped farmers become profitable, monoculture systems have huge drawbacks, like the Irish Potato Famine. Large, homogeneous crops enable bacteria, viruses, fungi, and insects to specialize on one specific host. This kills the entire crop and increases the chance that these microbes could mutate into an even more harmful variety.

Sorghum and peanut intercropped
Intercropping of sorghum and peanut in the Sahel of West Africa. Here, growing two crops together results in higher productivity compared with producing sole crops, with less chance of a complete crop failure. Photographer: Charles Wortmann

In the 150 years since the Irish Potato Famine, hunger has continued to wreak havoc in the world. An estimated 200 million children under five years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition. Ten million people are reported to die each year from hunger-related causes. Science has brought genetic improvements and agronomic advances worldwide, but hunger and famine are still here. Those people living in hunger-prone areas of Africa and Asia still live under the specter of crop failure. Threats arise from multiple causes, including climate change and poor seed stock, but are exacerbated by monoculture.

There is no straightforward solution on how to reap the economic benefits of monoculture while eliminating its negative impacts. However, farmers worldwide are increasingly moving to the practice of crop rotation. Farmers plant one crop in an area one year, then switch to another the following growing season. This helps reduce possible infestations with crop diseases. It can help soil quality. Crop rotation makes things more complicated for the farmer who has so far relied on monocultures, but successful, sustainable, and productive crop rotation practices already exist around the world.

Another farming technique that can help plants fight disease is called intercropping. In this type of system, a second crop is added in between rows of another crop. There are multiple benefits to intercropping, but one of them is that the crops tend to act like barriers for the spread of disease–working like a band-aid might halt the spread infection on your skin.

Long-term practice of monoculture, specifically with the Lumper potato, made the plants in Irish fields more susceptible to disease. When the HERB-1 fungus arrived on Irish soil, conditions were ripe for the fungus to thrive at the expense of farmers and their families. Armed with this knowledge, researchers and farmers alike are improving and adopting practices like crop rotation, intercropping, and increasing crop diversity. This argues for diversity in the world’s crops to reduce hunger and starvation, even if this entails lower yields.

Answered by Jean E. McLain, University of Arizona

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10 thoughts on “The Irish Potato Famine – could it happen again?

  1. Late blight is not soil borne, it grows on the leaves and the spores move trough the air. The only real control is still accomplished with fungicides and hopefully in the future with resistant cultivars.

    1. Hi Dennis, thanks for reading, we appreciate your comments and those of another reader. SVF

  2. The article about potato late blight missed the mark in providing several important facts
    The fungus causing late blight can not live in soil in the absence of potato reminance
    A prior year of record yields resulted in potatoes improperly stored and not disposed of properly the following year
    The tubers from the previous year that were slightly infected were improperly disposed of and served as a source of infection
    At the time chemicals, even natural ones like copper sulfate were not used to protect the crop
    With correct disposal of infected potatoes from previous year and protection against the late blight with sprays the disaster would not have occurred
    Rotation of fields to other crops would not have prevented the disaster late blight caused
    Please provide the complete correct facts by speaking to a potato late blight specialist before you post information that lacks the complete true picture of why late blight caused the complications it did

  3. I would really love to read the story of potato famine narrated by the Irish Soil Science Society!

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