It’s the Potatoes

March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, which in the USA is generally treated as an excuse to wear green, eat and drink green things, and party.

Everybody’s Irish for a day, even if you’re Japanese:

Yokohama St. Patrick's Day parade.

By Kounosu (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This mystery might be clarified a bit with the information that the picture above was taken in Yokohama, which has a massive United States armed forces base in it. Which still begs the question of why St. Patrick’s Day is such a big deal. Sure, it’s an excuse for a parade and party, but we live in a city that has a two week festival for a two minute horse race. There are plenty of excuses, so why this one? Why the Irish, specifically?

A llama in a tiny hat.

By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Llama, Salta, Argentina) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A llama in a tiny hat. We’re not in Japan anymore.

The story of how St. Patrick’s Day partying went global actually starts in the Andes mountains of South America. Yes, really. Lots of wild potato species live here, and the people in the region domesticated some, and bred them into what would become a world-dominating staple crop. Potatoes are basically awesome in every way. You can feed a family for a year on just a quarter acre of potatoes. You can freeze dry them and store them almost indefinitely. Or you can put ’em in a giant warehouse with EPIC MUSIC. Even if they’re not freeze dried, they keep well as long as you put them in a cool dark place. Eventually, when Europeans came to the Americas, the potato was one of the many food crops they brought back with them.

MEANWHILE in Ireland, geopolitics and economical stuff was going on. Irish tenant farmers grew cash crops for export to England on behalf of their – again, mostly English – landlords. Enter the potato. Since you can get so many potatoes out of such a small amount of land, the tenant farmers came to depend on potatoes as a staple food crop. Less land devoted to food production means more land for the cash cropping, which also means more export profits. A large part of the population soon depended on potatoes to supply the bulk of their caloric needs.

MEANWHILE MEANWHILE a disease of potatoes  – now known as Phytophthora infestans or potato late blight – was introduced to Europe, which – combined with bad weather – caused a massive failure of the potato crop.

A very bad potato, rotten on the inside, thanks to potato late blight.

Potato Late Blight: that’s not good. It’s also not edible.

For people affected by the same potato disease and weather in most other parts of Europe, this was bad news, but they had other crops to fall back on. In Ireland, though, where much of the population relied very heavily on potatoes, this was a catastrophe. With the food crop completely rotten, and government failing to take effective action in time to prevent the food shortage, mass starvation set in, and much of the surviving population left Ireland. Here’s a map of Irish population decline during the Irish Potato Famine. Maps are wonderful things. There’s plenty more reading you can do on the Irish Potato Famine, and the Irish diaspora, too.

Long story short, famines aren’t like natural disasters; they require societal specialization followed up by food crop failure and breakdowns of organization or failures of supply in order to happen. So that’s how green cookies, South American civilizations, and why we have seed banks like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are interconnected. Everything is interesting, and everything is intertwined. Explore connections. Generally, the more you learn about something, the more interesting it becomes.