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Why would the Irish protest famine-proof potatoes?

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted March 13, 2006

In Ireland where the 1840's potato famine killed a million people and made millions more homeless why are hundreds of Irish men and women protesting against the new genetically engineered blight-proof potato?

Can the modern Irish have forgotten the biggest disaster in their history? A million Irish men, women and children starved because the late blight disease suddenly destroyed the vital potato crop. Millions more Irish lost their homes and farms and wandered the roads, subsisting on tree bark, weeds and whatever else they could find. One million Irish emigrants boarded what became known as "coffin ships," sailing ships too often infested with typhus and cholera, fleeing Ireland for the hope of better lives in the U.S. and Canada.

Even today, Ireland is dotted with "famine cottages" -- little two-room stone houses, whose thatched roofs have long since rotted away. Their walls still stand, however, as grim reminders of one of history's biggest crop disease disasters.

Ever since 1845, plant breeders have been urgently seeking blight-resistant potatoes. Potatoes produce more food value per acre than any other crop, and they are rich sources of vitamin C and other micronutrients. Countries such as China, Bangladesh and Rwanda in the Central African highlands have become more and more dependent on potatoes to feed their increasingly dense populations.

But the late blight has continued to worsen. Chemical sprays have been less and less successful as the blight acquired resistance, and a virulent new strain of the blight appeared in 1994. American potato growers have recently had to spray their potato crops as many as 12 times per season. In warmer climates like Mexico, up to 25 sprays have been needed. Organic farmers have had to use heavy applications of toxic copper sulfate, preventively.

For the past 50 years, a genetic solution has been in hand -- but unusable. A gene for late blight resistance had been found by plant explorers in a wild Mexican potato relative, Solanum bulbocastanum, which apparently evolved along with the late blight microorganism. Unfortunately, plant breeders could never cross-breed the wild potato relative's blight resistance into a domestic potato.

In the past decade, researchers finally seized the problem by the scruff of its DNA and inserted the resistance gene directly into domestic potato using biotechnology. The University of Wisconsin, the University of California/Davis and Wageningen University in the Netherlands have all released blight-resistant varieties. "So far, the plants have been resistant to everything we have thrown at them, says Dr. John Hellgeson who led the Wisconsin research team.

The Irish protestors say biotech potatoes would ruin their export market for potatoes -- but Ireland is not a major potato exporter. The protestors say the blight-proof potatoes would put Irish farmers at the mercy of big corporations. However, blight-resistance patents are held by public universities. Chemical corporations make the pesticides, such as metalaxyl and copper sulfate, on which potato growers currently depend. With resistance built-into the potato, they'd be less dependent on chemical solutions.

Totally missing from the Irish potato protests is any empathy for the millions of their ancestors who died or fled because of the late blight; Or compassion for the farmers currently trying to grow potatoes in the face of virulent new late blight spores; Or sympathy for the million Rwandans who hacked each other to death in 1994 primarily for fear the country's limited farmland and dependence on blight-susceptible potatoes would lead to famine.

For a hundred years the Irish condemned the English overseers for exporting Irish grain while the Irish starved -- now, in a grim irony, the Irish are trying to prevent a famine solution for themselves and billions of poor people around the world.

At the next Irish potato protest, however, somebody should park a sound truck playing the haunting Irish folk songs recalling the desperate wanderings and continuing torments of the Irish potato famine's millions of victims.

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and the Director of the Center for Global Food Issues.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State.  Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.

 

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