On my third day on the job, I was informed that I would be teaching a class later that day. Who am I teaching? Where? How long? On what topic? Go ask Sunday was the only answer.
I knew Sunday was in charge of the garden, but he wasn’t to be found there until after lunch. When I asked him for details, I learned that the class was actually an extracurricular activity called “Wildlife Club” at the secondary school, open to all students. Despite the name, the focus could be anything related to ecology. The idea was that I’d teach the next three classes (one per week), starting today. Okay, I said, what topic are you working on now? Sunday shrugged. Er, well, what topic would you like to work on now? “Diversification!” he responded instantly. We made a plan to go to the school together at the end of the school day—which gave me less than two hours to prepare.
In my few days in Uganda, I’d noticed that pretty much everyone practiced subsistence farming. People lived in extended family groups that shared land and resources and passed them down through generations. Anyone who’s seen Gorillas in the Mist is aware that some of the last tracts of forest were set aside to protect the endangered mountain gorillas just a couple of decades ago, and anyone with eyes could see that the exploding population of Uganda had already slashed and burned its way right up to the boundaries of those preserves. And finally, I had noticed that a food that was very familiar to me was a surprising staple of the Uganda diet: the potato, as I call it, although the locals called it “Irish.” That was my inspiration.
Thank heaven, DARPA, Google, Wikipedia, et al. for the Internet! I was able to quickly brush up on some facts, dates, history, and context. I worked out a lesson plan in my head as Sunday and I walked the four kilometers or so to the school. The story of the Irish potato famine is very interesting and has priceless lessons for everyone alive today, so I’m going to include it here, more or less as I presented it to the students (interactive-style) for anyone who’s interested.
The classroom is in a concrete block building. The windows have no glass, only solid wooden shutters that block out the light when closed. The room is furnished with battered, heavy wooden tables and benches, and a slate chalkboard, but no chalk (someone goes to find some). There are no maps, posters, charts, books, pencils, paper, no teaching aids of any kind. The only embellishment on the walls are painted admonitions about the dangers of unprotected sex.
Students trickle in. Chalk arrives. I’ve been told that all classes in secondary school are conducted in English. I introduce myself. No one understands me, because of my accent. Sunday repeats everything I say, in English. We begin.
Where do Irish potatoes come from? No, not Ireland. Not Africa. Not China. The potatoes that we grow on farms today originally came from South America, from Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. (I sketch a crude map of the world on the blackboard, pointing out the continents at play in the story). Potatoes were introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the late 1500s. Over the next 250 years, the people of Europe adopted the potato as a major food crop.
In the 1800s, Ireland was a conquered land, ruled from England. Most of the land belonged to aristocratic lords who didn’t live in the country, but lived instead near London. The lords made decisions about how to run their farms and what crops to grow based on how much money they could make off it. The people of Ireland, who numbered about 8 million, worked the land as tenant farmers. They worked for the landlords, growing crops for export or raising sheep for wool for the textile industry, and were allowed to rent only a small plot of land to grow food for themselves.
In Ireland, just as in Uganda, it was tradition to divide up the farm and give the portions to the children when they were old enough to get married and raise families of their own. But in Ireland, just as in Uganda, the population was increasing rapidly. The parcels of land that each family had for growing food were getting smaller and smaller. It became harder and harder to grow enough food to feed the family all year.
What would you do? I asked the class for solutions. How would you feed your growing family with less and less land?
Grow food on the landlords’ land. A reasonable thought, but, impossible. You might be thrown in prison, and your whole family would be kicked off the land.
Cut the forest so there’s more farmland. Ah. (I was hoping for this one.) Just like this region of Uganda, Ireland was once covered by forest. By the time we’re talking about, by the 1800s, the forest was almost completely gone. All the land that could be turned into farmland, was already farmland.
It turns out that potatoes produce the most food per acre of just about any crop. They’re also very nutritious, filling, and versatile, and they keep well; they’re easy to store to last all year until the next crop. (The students agreed. Potatoes are a good crop.) Year after year, the farmers of Ireland were forced to grow more and more potatoes, and less and less of anything else, because it was the only way to obtain more food from less land. By the early 1840s, the people of Ireland were totally dependent on this one crop. Without it, they would starve.
A disease known as potato blight began killing crops in America in 1841. The disease is believed to have originated in Mexico. Some potatoes that carried the disease were inadvertently used as seed potatoes in Spain, and within a few years the blight had spread through the soil to most of Europe, including England and Ireland. In 1845, one-third of the potato crop in Ireland was ruined. In 1846, they lost three-fourths of the harvest. People began to die of starvation. By the following year, they were running out of seeds to even try for the next harvest.
The blight continued for seven years. One million people died of hunger. Another one million people left their homes, left Ireland, most of them forever, seeking food and work in other countries. That’s 25% of the population lost to death or emigration. My own ancestors came to America during the famine.
There’s more to the story, of course. Politics, economics, greed, and ignorance all played a role in this disaster, making it much worse, but the simple version of the story is still true: the people of Ireland were dependent on a single crop, a monoculture. When this crop failed, seven years in a row, the result was a devastating famine and terrible suffering.
What is your best defense against something like this happening here? (That seems to be too broad a question.) How can you protect your farms from a disease like potato blight?
Spray the crop with medicine! (The students seem very certain that this is the solution. Done. Problem solved.) OK, fungicides might help, but if you keep planting the same crop in the same field, year after year, the disease will probably keep returning, too. You’ll have to keep on treating it with “medicine,” which can be expensive. And the disease could become resistant. Someday the medicine may stop working. (The students are skeptical. Stop working? Impossible. OK, we move on.) What else could you do? What was the fundamental problem for the Irish?
They had nothing else to eat. Yes. You can avoid that problem through diversification. You still might lose your Irish potato crop to disease one year, but if you also grew sweet potatoes and carrots, you’ll still have something to eat. That’s one way to diversify: grow a variety of crops. Another way is to change which vegetable you grow in each plot from season to season. If your Irish potatoes in one place have a disease this year, grow Swiss chard there next season. In time, the fungus will die off, because you took its food away. Another way to diversify is companion planting. (They perk up. They’re familiar with the concept). Not only do you have a variety of foods growing in less space, but the plants may help nourish and protect each other so they all stay healthier and produce more.
And so on. I list the strategies on the board, emphasizing the ones that relate to diversification—multiple crops, multiple varieties (genetic diversity), crop rotation, companion planting, fallowing, pasture management, hedgerows, building healthy soils with healthy micro-organisms, diversifying root systems, diverse insect-animal communities. Other suggestions—fungicides, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, chemical pesticides—go in a separate column. They have their uses, they might be a good solution sometimes, I try to explain, but they tend to reduce diversity. The chemicals harm the soil, make it less fertile. Pesticides kill the beneficial insects as well as the harmful ones.
Time is running short, but I’m already pondering next week’s lesson. These kids know much more about farming than I do—they’ve been working on their family farms all their lives already. I’m surprised at how familiar and comfortable they are with the use of chemicals and industrial practices to solve their problems, but also at how one-sided their knowledge is. They only know about the short-term benefits. The thought that there could be some longer-range pitfalls is not just new information, but inconceivable. And we didn’t even begin to talk about the economic ramifications of dependency on these methods.
I’m out of my depth, but Sunday and the other teachers seem pleased. It was a good story, an impressive one. New concepts have been introduced. Seeds have been planted. That’s all you can hope for.This entry was posted in Uganda, Vacation 2016: East/South Africa
One thought on “The Irish Potato Famine—A Lesson in Diversification”
I love this historical story., Great lesson.