Friday, March 16, 2012
Lessons From The Potato
Often people see significant historical events as being linked to significant incidents in history. Certainly this can be the case. Planes flying into buildings will leave scars that will never truly be healed. But only looking for big events as a way to mark the passing of time leaves us missing some of the most powerful lessons that have ever occurred in written history. The potato, and it's introduction to the European people, is one of those small events that had extremely far reaching consequences even to this day.
The potato is a member of the nightshade family, one of the most used plant families by humans. It shares its membership in this clan with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatilloes, belladonna, horse nettle, the deadly nightshade, and many others. The family has been used all over the world and throughout history to heal, to kill, to feed, and even to make women beautiful (belladonna was used to dilate women's eyes to make them appear more sexy-of course this also damaged their heart and lungs in the process, but anything to look good). The nightshade family contains some of the most deadly toxins known to the plant world. Even when looking at the foods from that family, the potato has toxins in it and eating green skinned potatoes have sent people to the hospital. Always store your potatoes in the dark to prevent the skin from going green.
The potato, like the tomato, is an American food crop, it was discovered by Europeans when the New World was discovered. Unlike the tomato though, the Europeans fell in love with the potato almost immediately. The tomato was considered to be a poisonous ornamental plant for a very long time after being brought back to Europe. The potato though was a delicious starch that could be grown in a small space. This was a HUGE boon to the Europeans, who at that time was getting their starch and carbohydrates mostly from grains. It takes a large amount of fertile land and a great deal of energy to grow large amounts of grains. In fact, scientifically speaking, we put more calories into planting, raising, and harvesting grains than we get back from eating them. Europeans of old had to make up those calories by eating meat, which also needed grains to survive. Now, of course we make up those calories by getting them from petroleum products that run our machinery.
The potato, however, is one of the extremely few plants that can be grown that gives back more calories than it takes to produce it. It can be grown in a much smaller space, and the land does not need to be as fertile to grow potatoes as it does to grow grains. To the Europeans, potatoes were a gift from God for discovering a new world. Field after field of grains were replaced with potatoes. Rocky, infertile lands that had been useless before were now being dug up from potato crops. Farmers began to breed the potato to get desirable traits until there were three major breeds of potatoes being planted in Europe. If one is to see a map of European cities before the introduction of the potato and a map of European cities 25 years after the introduction of the potato they would see that some cities grew almost literally overnight. Europe had a population explosion, all due to this new wonder food. Less people died of starvation, more children were being born, and more and more farmers abandoned all other crops in favor of the now staple, potato. Because it was (and is) so easy to grow, many new generation farmers knew how to grow nothing else. Why bother learning to grow difficult foods when potatoes were so simple and everyone ate them?
Well, one of the main lessons that potatoes should have taught us was what goes up, must come down. The higher up it goes, the further it has to fall. The potato taught that lesson in a big way. Because farmers had bred out the diversity of the potato, instead focusing mainly on three breeds that produced the best traits, the crop became vulnerable to disease. Onto this very large stage entered The Blight. The blight is a soil borne disease that affects the nightshade family. It is a fungus that builds up in the soil during wet years and can live there for many years until it it simply too big to stop. This is what happened in Europe. Because the potatoes were planted in the same soil year after year after year, and because they replanted the same potatoes year after year after year, the blight not only affected the soil but was in the seed chain itself. Then, because it only needed to learn how to affect three different strains of potatoes, there was no stopping it.
The blight originally hit Europe in the form that is called the 'late' blight. This simply means it hits late in the season. Often a farmer can still harvest some of his crop during the late blight. I know the year I got the blight, 2008, I still had tomatoes, just not as many and they weren't as flavorful. The same goes with potatoes, you're still going to get potatoes out of the ground, but there just won't be as many of them because the above ground part of the plant was dying and couldn't give enough energy to the roots to produce many potato tubers. But, because the farmers planted next years potatoes in the same soil and used seed potatoes from the infected last year crop, the next growing year they were struck by the 'early' blight. This fungus wiped out the plants before they had the chance to produce any tubers.
Suddenly the most important crop in Europe, the one that fed over half the population, the one that caused that population explosion to begin with, wasn't there. And because farmers had not diversified with many other crops there was little to nothing to fall \back on when the potato crop failed. The inevitable happened...Starvation. When there isn't enough food to feed the people, the people starve. The Europe that was so strong and could never fall, began to crumble because of the lowly potato. It is estimated that 2 million people fled Europe, most coming to the U.S., to save themselves, while close to that amount starved to death back in Europe, though the numbers vary. It was the largest mass human migration in recorded history. It brought the largest immigrant group to the U.S., the Irish. To this day here in the U.S. the Great Potato Famine is often called the Irish Potato Famine because of the huge influx of Irish that came to our shores due to starvation. Those back in Europe know it was a continent wide disaster though.
The potatoes that I plant in my garden this evening are the offspring of the plant that should have taught us many lessons;
"Don't put all your eggs in one basket." By make only one crop be so important the Europeans were opening themselves up to the disaster that followed.
"What goes up must come down." No matter how much we think something is a normal and unbreakable part of our lives, it can and will fail at one time or another. Will we be ready to survive and rebuild when it does?
"All good things come to an end." While the potato is still an important crop, it never regained the popularity it had before the famine. While it is still an easy food to grow, we now know that we need to protect our sources by buying disease free seed potatoes and not to grow them in the same soil year after year. We have also learned, especially we homesteaders, to never rely on one crop to keep us alive. If that crop fails, we would simply be out of luck.
So as you get ready to put your potatoes to the ground (or if you already have) remember the lesson it taught us. It was a hard lesson to learn, and millions did not survive it to pass that lesson on. We lost whole families to the horrible death of starvation, that genetic code and wisdom forever gone. But we can take what their deaths taught us and never make that mistake again.
All lessons from nothing more than a potato and its role in history.