This path was created by Heather Campbell. The last update was by Erika Strandjord.
Agricultural Biology of the Famine
The devastation wreaked by the Famine in Ireland was in part the result of naive (though perhaps unavoidable at the time) agricultural practice.
Ireland’s staple crop at the time was a specific variety of potato called the “Lumper”, which was farmed via “vegetative propagation,” a process that involves “planting pieces of the plant itself,” according to John Reader in Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent (Reader 23).
Vegetative propagation is a variety of asexual reproduction, a process that results in individual plants that are genetically identical to their parents: in short, the Irish farmed clone potatoes. The lack of genetic variation among Ireland’s potatoes meant that the country’s entire crop (which served as both food supply and product) was highly susceptible to phytophthora infestans (the potato blight) when it arrived in the country around 1845.
Vegetative propagation ultimately compounded the impact of the famine’s initial crop failure in 1845 because, according to Steven E. Landsburg’s article “Putting All Your Potatoes in One Basket: The economic lessons of the Great Famine,” the Irish “planted the same number of potatoes in 1846 as in 1845,” despite the fact that 1845 had yielded half the usual crop of potatoes. Irish farmers, presuming the failure to be one-time seasonal fluke, planted a large number of potatoes they would normally have eaten.
Landsburg, Steven E. “Putting All Your Potatoes in One Basket: The economic lessons of the Great Famine.” Slate. The Slate Group, March 13, 2001. Web. 7 March, 2016.
Reader, John. Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent. Conneticut: Yale UP, 2009.