By the 1800’s the hills of Ireland were covered in the green foliage of potato plants. More than 3 million (or ⅖) Irish peasants subsisted almost solely on the potato, namely the lumper potato. Then, in 1846, the fungus-like late blight (Phytophthora infestans), arrived. It spread by air-borne spores from field to field. The potatoes turned to black ooze.
Because there was not plant diversity, the late blight swept through this single source of food. By 1852 nearly one million Irish had died to disease and starvation and another million had emigrated. This system of farming, growing large fields of single varieties with almost no genetic variation, was first done by the Irish. Today we refer to it as modern farming.
Never Out of Season
Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future by Rob Dunn explores massive crop failures, many much lesser known than the potato famine (bananas, rubber tree, cassava). Dunn digs into the plant and ecological vulnerabilities that led to these failures and examines how we responded. More importantly, the book questions modern monoculture farming in light of these past mistakes. Never Out of Season is an exhortation to diversify our food supply and to avoid the same mistakes learned from the Irish Potato Famine.
Why We Eat What We Eat
The Inca Empire inhabited the Andean Mountains in what is modern-day Peru. Thousands of years of farming the varied terrain of the empire resulted in a crop and livestock diversity that is difficult for us to comprehend today. Potatoes, tomatoes, quinoa, alpacas, llamas and guinea pigs are just some of the crops and livestock cultivated exclusively by the Incas.
Much of the food we encounter in our local supermarket is a result of Francisco Pizarro, the Conquistador who destroyed the Inca Empire. When he first encountered the Inca their food and farming techniques would have been completely unfamiliar to him. The Conquistadors were not farmers and would not have had an eye for what crops would be valuable to bring back to Europe. Furthermore, not many crops could survive the long trip between the Americas and Europe.
The Inca grew twenty-five different root and tuber crops including oca, mashua and potatoes. Their potato crops include thousands of varieties. From this wealth of root crops, only a few varieties of potatoes ever made it back to Europe.
The Irish and the Potato
The Irish readily adopted the potato. It grows well in their wet climate where not much else does. The potato also provides almost complete nutrition
But, there is a more complex reason for the Irish dependence on the potato. In the nineteenth century, Ireland Protestant barons of British descent owned huge estates. They rented out their land to Irish tenant farmers. These farmers paid the majority of their yield to their landlords who then sold the food to the growing urban populations in Ireland and England. The Irish ate potatoes because, after having most of their food taken by this unjust land system, potatoes provided the most food per acre. It can be said that the famine was caused by capitalism, not a water mold.
Economic forces rooted in social injustice still drive much of the world’s monocultures. Bananas, grown in tropical regions largely for export to northern nations, are genetic clones of the Cavendish banana. West Africa is deforested and slave labor used to grow one plant that feeds the cravings of the north, cacao. The sea of North America grasslands is wiped out. In their place, genetically modified corn. Dunn notes that 90 percent of calories consumed by humans comes from fifteen species (3). This system leads to the simplification and homogenization of the earth.
The Future of Food
Rob Dunn reveals the threat to this system from disease, pests, political and social upheaval and terrorism. But, he also offers solutions. He advocates for putting money into studying pests, pollinators and fungus. Dunn champions making educated and thoughtful food choices. He celebrates heroes of seed diversity like Nikolai Vavilov who collected more seeds from around the world than any other person. He tells the unsung story of Vavilov’s scientists who died protecting this seed diversity from Nazis during the Siege of Leningrad. These scientists starved to death rather than eat the seeds they protected.
Dunn’s closing request in Never Out of Season is for everyone to become a plant scientist. By growing, observing and recording crops in our own yards we add to public knowledge about the food we eat. Through seed saving and participation in seed libraries we develop and share community-specific crops. By involving our children in these processes we ensure the future of food.
There is a better way to grow food, one that connects us to the plants, soil and wild places that surround us. This way is not only more resilient and just than modern farming, it is also more fulfilling.
Grab Never Out of Season from your library or click the image below to purchase.