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Two super foods were domesticated in the New World, potatoes and corn. It’s possible to grow both without draft animals and plows. Both plants produce more calories per acre than any Old World crop plant, except for rice, an Asian super food. Super foods possess especially powerful juju for accelerating the growth and collapse of dense and self-destructive populations.
Potatoes (affectionately nicknamed “spuds”) can be grown in a wide variety of soils and climates, at elevations ranging from sea level up to 14,000 feet (4,267 m). Spuds originated in the Andes region of western South America. They are now grown in at least 149 countries. There are still many varieties of wild potatoes in the Andes, and they come in every size, shape, and color. The tubers of some varieties contain bitter toxins, which encourage hungry critters to eat other stuff. Spuds are smarter than they look.
It’s unclear when they were first domesticated, but it was certainly prior to 2000 B.C. There are maybe 400 types of domesticated spuds. Prudent farmers might plant 50 to 60 varieties in their fields, because something that kills one is less likely to kill all. Spuds are awesome. The plants mature rapidly, in just 90 to 120 days. Per day, they produce more food energy per acre than any other crop plant. An acre of potatoes produces up to four times more calories than an acre of grain.
John Reader noted that potatoes are an especially nutritious plant food. Compared to cereal grains, spuds provide a better mix of carbs, protein, vitamins, and minerals. The carbs are primarily starch, which is released into the body more gently than carbs from fats or sugars. Spuds are a good source of B vitamins, and deliver lots of vitamin C. Grains have more protein, but spuds provide protein of higher quality, including essential amino acids that the body must acquire readymade.
Reader says that, of all foods, potatoes provide the “best all-round package of nutrition.” In Ireland 200 years ago, adult males consumed an average of 10 pounds (4.5 kg) per day. With a glass of milk with every meal, they would get 4,000 calories per day, and receive all the required nutrients. At times of hard labor, lads would sometimes eat up to 20 pounds per day. While Irish peasants were often dirt poor, dressed in rags, and living in mud huts, they had a healthier diet than most Europeans. Unfortunately, being well nourished enabled higher birthrates. Population soared almost 500 percent in 154 years (1687 to 1841). Danger!
Spuds are associated with the Inca (Inka) civilization, whose capital was Cuzco (Cusco), Peru. The founders were the Quechua people, who were hunter-gatherers long before they became farmers. Hunter-gatherer cultures were living in Andes by 12,000 years ago, and they were the ones who eventually domesticated potatoes.
The Inca civilization was sort of a flash in the pan, existing from about 1438 to 1533, until snuffed out by Spaniards, and their diseases (smallpox, influenza, typhus, measles). Preceding the Incas, there were a number of civilizations that rose and fell in the Andes region over the span of several thousand years. The Inca Empire had a population of maybe 6 to 14 million, overseen by an elite class of 15 to 40 thousand. The elites were not universally loved, and many folks celebrated the arrival of the tyrannical Spanish, which they saw as a great liberation from unbearable oppression.
The Inca Empire was 2,200 miles long (3,540 km), and 190 miles (306 km) wide. Prior to the tsunami of Europeans and their slaves, the Incas were the largest empire that ever existed in North and South America. They were home to 40 percent of the combined population of both continents. The range of the empire was essentially limited to habitat that was suitable for llamas and alpacas, extremely important animals that provided meat, manure, hides, and fiber. The Incas had no wheels, no writing, no iron or steel, no riding animals, and no draft animals to pull carts or plows — but llamas were used to haul loads of stuff.
The Incas grew food on terraced plots, and built irrigation systems. They built stone cities and temples, cut tunnels through mountains, crossed rivers with rope suspension bridges hung from stone towers. They built causeways across wetlands, and cut pathways along the sides of steep slopes. They had 14,300 miles (23,000 km) of paved roads, long enough to encircle the globe. Teams of relay runners could carry messages 1,491 miles (2400 km) in five days. Great roads also accelerated the spread of diseases, Spaniards, and missionaries.
The original staple food for folks in the high Andes was potatoes, which were often grown in rotation with quinoa and kañihua (cañihua) — two plants that produce high protein cereal-like seeds, but neither are technically cereals, because they aren’t card-carrying members of the grass family. The seeds of both can germinate at or near freezing temperature.
Plots of cropland were periodically fallowed, and herds of llamas and alpacas were moved in to drop steaming gifts of precious fertilizer all over the place. In season, folks dined on fresh spuds. Surplus spuds were freeze dried into chuño, a nutritious commodity that the tax collectors came to collect. Chuño could be stored for years. Archaeologists at one site found chuño created 2,200 years ago.
Chuño can be made at elevations above 13,000 feet (4,000 m) during the long dry season, when there are freezing temperatures at night, and bright sunlight in the daytime hours. Chuño country is not far from the equator, but high elevations create an unusual combination of “tropical noon and arctic midnight,” which is perfect for freeze drying.
The process for making chuño could take two months. It involved freezing, soaking in cold water, freezing again, rubbing, squeezing, and drying in direct sunlight. The complicated process removed the water, skins, and toxins. The end product was light, firm, highly nutritious, and chalk-white. Incas also freeze dried the flesh of birds, fish, alpacas, and llamas. The word “jerky” came to us from the Andes.
Civilizations cannot exist for long if they don’t have effective systems for storing substantial quantities of food (usually grain) to keep folks fed during lean seasons, lean years, and wartime. In the Old World, the emergence of agriculture and pottery-making were closely associated. When dried grain was stored in sealed ceramic containers, it was not lost to rats and mice.
Incas stored chuño, jerky, and corn in thousands of frosty underground warehouses scattered throughout their empire. Stored food provided abundant fuel for the rapid expansion of their empire — road building, urban construction, military adventures, and so on. It also provided a social safety net. Some say that Incas never starved. Fifteen years after defeating the Incas, one Spaniard commented that food stored near Xauxa enabled him to feed 2,000 troops for seven weeks.
At some point prior to the Inca era, corn from Mesoamerica arrived in the Andes. Corn produced high yields, was suitable for long term storage, did not require labor-intense freeze drying, and was easy to transport (but nutritionally inferior to spuds). Corn cannot be grown at elevations above 8,200 feet (2,500 m). Where it could be grown, folks grew corn instead of spuds. Inca leaders actively encouraged the intensified production of corn, and John Reader called this decision a “masterstroke.” Folks had to build new terraces and irrigation systems to grow more corn. Potatoes remained the most important crop, but the decision to deliberately maximize the output of super foods lit the fuse for the explosive growth of the Inca Empire.
So, once the Inca leaders were defeated and out of the way, the kind and loving Spaniards shape shifted into cruel, greedy, demonic monsters. They snatched all the awesome gold and silver treasures in Cuzco, melted them down, and shipped eleven tons of it back home. Then, they learned about the Potosí silver mine, assembled lots of forced labor, and created a boom town. In the year 1592, Potosí produced more than 400 tons of refined silver. By and by, back in Spain, this tsunami of wealth blindsided an already wobbly economy with soaring price inflation. It also funded the creation of the Spanish Empire. The royalty, giddy with enormous wealth, decided this was a good time to go on the warpath.
In addition to gold and silver, lots of other stuff was sent back to the Old World, including turkeys, guinea pigs, cocoa, and tobacco. A planet-rocking time bomb was also shipped back home — two super foods: spuds and corn.
Super Foods Supercharge Europe
Clive Ponting noted that until about 1800, most of the world’s great cities were outside of Europe. In the year 600, Rome was home to 50,000, while 100,000 lived in Teotihuacán in Mexico. Of the 100 towns and cities in Europe in 1000, half were in Italy. In 1086, London had a population of just 10,000. The staple foods in Europe were cereal grains, which produced far fewer calories per acre than spuds, were far less nutritious, and far more laborious to plant. Corn and spuds could be planted with simple hand tools and human muscle power. Wheat, rye, barley, and oats grew best in soil that was pulverized by harnessing a plow to oxen or horses — a far more resource-intensive process.
Spuds arrived in Spain by 1570, and gradually migrated across the continent, arriving in Scandinavia 100 years later. The adaptation of corn also spread slowly. Dirt poor subsistence farmers, who constantly felt the cold breath of starvation on their backs, were exceedingly conservative. They were never eager to impulsively throw all caution to the wind, and bet their survival on weird exotic crops from outer space.
Alfred Crosby noted that skeptical farmers were eventually convinced that the exotics were better in many ways than the crops they traditionally grew. Over time, corn became a staple in southern Europe. Potatoes were widely adopted in northern Europe, where they produced far more nutrients per acre than traditional grain crops. It took 5 acres (2 ha) of grain to feed a family of five, but just 1.5 acres of potatoes. Farmers could raise potatoes on marginal soils, using only a spade. Unlike grains, spuds needed no grinding or milling. Like grains, potatoes were also vulnerable to molds, fungus, and weather that was too wet or cool. Western Europe was best suited for growing healthy forests and wildlife, rather than spuds, cereals, livestock, and tropical primates.
Grain could be stored for years, but not spuds. Europe’s climate was unsuitable for making freeze dried chuño. Western Europe had mild winters during which the ground rarely froze. Spuds could be left buried in the field for several months, unharmed by light frost, until springtime warmth returned.
Spuds provided some extra security for farm families. When grain is ripe, it has to be harvested and stored. William McNeill noted that full granaries were treasure chests of essential nutrients, which made them primary targets for annoying visitors, like tax and rent collectors. Collectors grabbed the grain, but left the spuds alone, because they were too much work to dig up, and they couldn’t be stored indefinitely. Landlords and nobles wanted grain.
Passing troops were even more despised than the collectors. In the old days, armies did not haul around caravans of food supplies. Instead, they stopped at farms, confiscated their stored grain, and left the peasants to starve. This was a common practice, and more than a little discourteous. In wartime, while soldiers were dying on the battlefield, peasants were dying in their huts, which seriously disrupted the stability of food producing rural communities. How smart was that?
During the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48), Fredrick the Great was astonished to discover that far more spud growing peasants survived, compared to those who grew grain, lost it, and starved. Like the tax and rent collectors, passing troops didn’t have the time or desire to dig up fields of potatoes. It was much faster and easier to empty the granaries and march on. Fredrick realized that if folks planted more spuds, wartime would be less devastating to society. It was wise to be nice to peasants. So, he distributed free seed potatoes throughout his kingdom.
McNeill noted that others soon joined the parade. Leaders in Austria, Russia, and France recognized the strategic advantages of joining the spud cult. Over time, the resistance of conservative peasants melted away. More and more came to the conclusion that they preferred boiled potatoes to death by starvation.
This inspired a wave of innovation in agricultural practices. Traditional processes were fine-tuned for maximizing grain output. New and improved processes were needed to accelerate spud production, and clever folks came up with some bright ideas. In the traditional system, every year either a third or half of the cropland was left fallow, to suppress weeds. In the new system, fallow land became potato fields. Amazingly, the amount of grain harvested was not diminished, and spud harvests provided a mother lode of bonus calories.
Before long, bonus bambinos were squirting out of wombs, at just the right time. See, turning fallow land into potato fields required additional labor, because happy weeds now had to be mercilessly killed, in late spring and early summer, by workers with hoes and spades. By utilizing this extra labor, farmers could now produce two to four times more calories per acre, and feed even more bambinos.
McNeill’s big idea was that potatoes radically changed world history during the era spanning from 1750 to 1950. Spuds had become popular in Ireland and the Scottish highlands, but were especially important on the vast European plain, which spanned from northern France, Germany, Poland, and eastward into Russia.
While spuds required more farm labor, skyrocketing population growth provided more workers than needed in the fields. Surplus people provided a labor force for the Industrial Revolution, which developed rapidly in northern Europe. Low wages and miserable working conditions were more desirable than starvation. The transition to fossil energy turbocharged the boom years. The era of 1750 to 1950 was also a time when Europe established colonies and built empires. McNeill noted that the entire world was rapidly and radically transformed. Then, around 1947, European empires began disintegrating, and a new era began.
He wrote that without potatoes, Germany would have never grown into a leading military and industrial power in Europe after 1848. Russia would not have become a major threat to Germany after 1891. Millions of Europeans would not have migrated to America and other regions. And so, the humble dirty spud triggered an avalanche of chaotic bad craziness that blindsided societies all around the world.
Alfred Crosby wrote that, aided by potatoes and corn, both Europe and America were able to harvest far more food. People were better nourished, so child mortality dropped. The population of Europe leaped from 80 million in 1492, to 180 million in 1800, 390 million in 1900, and 556 million in 2019. Europe was bursting with people, and many migrated to colonies — Australia, New Zealand, southern Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Canada, and the U.S. Bottom line, world population leaped from 450 million in 1500 to 7.8 billion in 2020. Crosby concluded, “Calories can make as much history as cannons — more in the long run.”
Monocultures Beg For Trouble
Jeffrey Lockwood studied locusts. He described a swarm that visited Plattsmouth, Nebraska in June 1875. It was 110 miles (177 km) long, up to a mile (1.6 km) high, and travelled at 15 miles per hour (24 km/h). They visited for ten days, and covered maybe 198,000 square miles (512,817 km2). This swarm may have included 3.5 trillion locusts, and there were many other hungry swarms.
Where the swarms touched down, they devoured the greenery. They voraciously ate the clothing off of the clueless settlers, who had not majored in environmental history. In a few hours, a field could be rubbished. To express their deep gratitude to the settlers, for so generously providing such a wonderful banquet, the departing swarm might leave behind 940 million eggs per acre.
The ambitious American settlers suffered from get rich quick fever. In an era of above average precipitation, they plowed up large regions of western plains and planted wheat. Unmolested plains ecosystems are home to a highly diverse mix of species. Big Mama Nature cherishes diversity, and detests manmade monocultures (spit!). It turns out that wheat was a grass that locusts considered to be the most delicious food of all, and wheat was the primary crop on the western plains. Locusts were far less interested in gobbling up grazing land or dairy pastures.
Wheat was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, homeland of the Judeo-Christian culture. Wheat thrived in the Mediterranean climate, which provided generous winter rains to germinate the thirsty seeds. The Bible mentions locusts 28 times. Richard Manning once said, “The domestication of wheat was humankind’s greatest mistake.” (Or, was it corn, or potatoes, or rice, or…?)
As I bike around my town, I often see pennies lying on the street. For most folks, the low value of a penny simply does not provide sufficient motivation to stop, bend over, pick it up, and take it to the bank. This is something like a healthy diverse ecosystem — the things that critters value are widely scattered. Now, compare that to a monoculture. Let’s dump a sack of $100 bills on the street, a dense concentration of value. This treasure promptly attracts a large excited swarm and is rapidly swept away. Right?
Similarly, infectious diseases are far more likely to create epidemics in large, densely populated cities, with poor sanitation, and lots of malnourished people — especially societies that are interconnected with complex networks of long distance trade and travel. This is a highly vulnerable combo — a dense monoculture of people, plus high mobility ($100 bills). It’s much safer to live in small, remote, isolated villages that have clean water, adequate nutrition, and little or no contact with the outside world (pennies).
Like the wheat and locust duet, it’s a similar story with other crop plants. Unnatural density is begs for trouble. James Scott wrote that both humans and crops are vulnerable to viral, fungal, and bacterial diseases. Crops can be damaged by snails, slugs, insects, birds, rodents, and other mammals. Weeds can diminish their access to sunlight, water, nutrients, and space. A serious vulnerability for civilizations is that their survival depends on a successful annual harvest of just one or two staple foods. Over the centuries, many have gotten blindsided by droughts, deluges, floods, fires, pests, frosts, storms, crop diseases, and mean enemies.
Hunter-gatherers were more like the pennies scenario, low density people, in isolated groups, who obtained their nutrients from widely scattered local sources — healthy diversity, not goofy sprawling monocultures. Wild folks could live perfectly well by looking for pennies, because they couldn’t imagine something as ridiculous and unbearable as living in mobs of weird smelly strangers and pursuing an obscenely wasteful $100 lifestyle.
And now, an important story. John Reader was impressed by how nomadic foragers benefitted from their time-proven ultraconservative way of life. Some plant and animal foods were regularly eaten. Others were deliberately set aside to be famine food. Some groups also reserved portions of their land as a safety net that was only used in lean periods.
In the 1960s, anthropologists in Botswana were astounded to observe how well the San people lived during the third year of an extreme drought in the Kalahari, one of the harshest ecosystems on Earth. Neighboring Bantu farmers were hammered by three consecutive crop failures, and 250,000 of their cattle died. United Nations famine relief kept 180,000 farming people on life support. Some farmers who didn’t get food relief had to forage for wild food, putting further strain on food resources. Still, the San were able to acquire their food with just 12 to 19 hours a week of effort. They dwelt in a desolate “wasteland” that no civilized people could survive in, and they lived well and joyfully.
And so, dear reader, please remember this snapshot of ultraconservative wild survival, because it is strikingly different from stuff on the following pages about crop failures, blights, famines, and so on — the life threatening vulnerabilities of being completely dependent on the ups and downs of a small number of domesticated food plants.
Clive Ponting wrote an incredible information packed book on environmental history. Most readers have never felt the gnawing hunger of living during an extended food shortage. We have no memories of the “good old days” of wholesome, low-impact, horse powered, organic agriculture. Ponting summed it up like this: “Since the rise of settled societies some ten thousand years ago the overwhelming majority of the world’s population has lived in conditions of grinding poverty.” He added, “Until about the last two centuries in every part of the world nearly everyone lived on the edge of starvation.”
In the old days, “All but about five percent of the people in the world were peasants, directly dependent on the land and living a life characterized by high infant mortality, low life expectancy and chronic undernourishment, and with the ever-present threat of famine and the outbreak of virulent epidemics.”
Ponting’s perception of the past is very different our culture’s romanticized version, which presents us with stuff like the paintings of happy dancing peasants by Pieter Breughel. Having read loads of environmental history, I know that Ponting was not a creep who invented fake history. The era of muscle powered agriculture indeed gave the planet and its critters a painful beating. Of course, today’s fossil fuel powered nightmare has enabled us to beat the planet even faster and harder, in ways never before believed to be possible.
John Reader wrote that spuds first arrived in Ireland between 1586 and 1603. At that time, its population was somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million. By 1845, when the blight began, it had soared to 8.5 million, and the survival of about 90 percent of them depended almost entirely on potatoes. Well-nourished peasants had higher birth rates, and stronger resistance to disease. But when the blight nuked the spuds, a million peasants, weakened by hunger and disease, stood in long lines to take selfies with the Grim Reaper.
Because Ireland had a wetter climate, it was not an ideal place to grow cereals. Spuds could often tolerate dampness that would rot oats. So, potatoes were less risky, produced lots of calories, and didn’t require a draft animal and a plow. Ireland was the first nation in northern Europe to largely switch from cereal crops to spuds.
Before long, the exotic tubers were popular everywhere, from the palace to the pigsty. Brian Fagan noted that the population explosion had been fueled by several varieties of outstanding, gourmet spuds, like the Black, Apple, and Cups. But the production of these types could not keep up with the growing numbers of spud addicts. Feeding large families on small plots of land inspired a determined search for varieties of spuds that were even more productive.
By 1835, the Lumper, or horse potato, won the competition and became the dominant spud on the Emerald Isle. It came from England, where it had been developed for use as livestock fodder. The remarkably unexciting Lumper was coarse and watery, less nutritious, more vulnerable to disease, but indispensable life support for dirt poor peasants who had way too many kids. On the plus side, Reader said that the Lumper was 20 to 30 percent more productive than the fancy upper class spuds it replaced. On the downside, every single Lumper in every single field was an exact genetic clone (imagine a world with 7.8 billion Donald Trumps). What could possibly go wrong?
The famous Irish famine of 1845 was, in some ways, no surprise to anyone. Back in the good old days, crop failures, famines, and epidemics were commonplace. For example, Clive Ponting wrote that between the tenth and eighteenth centuries, France had 89 famines that were widespread national disasters, of which 26 of them hit in just the eleventh century. England suffered numerous local famines in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Famine rocked all of Europe from 1594 to 1597. Famine struck Belgium and Finland in 1867 and 1868. Rinderpest zoomed into Europe from Russia, where it killed 1.5 million cattle from 1709 to 1714. And so on.
Anyway, long before the late blight fungus arrived in Ireland, crop failures in 1740 and 1741 killed 400,000 Irish people. The late blight didn’t arrive until 1845. John Reader mentioned a theory that the late blight fungus originally emerged in the highlands of central Mexico. By and by, it migrated to South America. From there, in about 1841 or 1842, it hitched a ride with a shipment of potatoes to the United States. In 1843 the first outbreak of blight appeared in New York and Pennsylvania, and then spread along the east coast. Two years later, in 1845, it had spread west to the Mississippi, and north into Canada.
Meanwhile, in 1843, farmers in Flanders and Belgium were suffering losses from viral diseases and dry rot. To cure the problem, they ordered what they thought were healthy seed potatoes from the U.S. (where the blight was raging). Oh-oh! In the winter of 1843-44, the late blight fungus crossed the Atlantic in a load of spuds. Transatlantic trade in potatoes was made possible by new and amazing high-speed steam ships, and by the use of ice to prevent spoilage. Previously, sailing ships were too slow to deliver a load of spuds in good condition.
It’s interesting to note that sailing ships were also too slow to deliver live cholera microbes to the New World. But then, in 1832, a speedy new steamship from Britain was able to zoom across the ocean, and deliver cholera to a population in Montreal that had zero immunity. Before long, many were surprised when they erupted with firehose diarrhea. From there, the disease spread like lightning across the New World. Once again, millions took selfies with the Grim Reaper.
I need to pause for a second here to emphasize an important notion: there’s no place like home. During the maybe three million years when our wild ancestors lived in a low impact manner, they dined entirely on local wild foods. They naturally spent their lives in the region where they were born, because they were not migratory critters like geese, storks, or butterflies. They never forgot the creator’s instructions on how to live like tropical primates, which is why they lived very well for a very long time. They didn’t invent cars, planes, and other goofy stuff. Every day, they simply walked to work — perfectly sustainable transportation.
Spuds evolved in the Andes, where they adapted very well to a unique high elevation ecosystem, and enjoyed happy and fulfilling lives. In recent centuries, travelling tropical primates, who were far from their homeland, discovered spuds, and eventually carried them to distant lands that were less ideal than the Andes. When planted in Europe, they triggered a scenario similar to the “bull in a china shop” proverb. Prior to farmers, about 95 percent of west and central Europe was a healthy happy paradise of primordial forests. This harmonious situation was not in any way improved by deforestation, spud addiction, and huge swarms of tropical primates with voracious appetites.
Richard Manning noted that when spuds are planted in regions outside their Andes homeland, they can be far more vulnerable to insects, fungi, and viruses. Apparently the late blight fungus is widely dispersed, and usually dormant. Its wakeup alarm goes off when the weather gets too damp or chilly. Writing in 2000, Manning noted that in upstate New York, a 100 pound sack of ordinary spuds could be bought for $6, but organic spuds would cost $30. The difference is because no other food crop is blasted with so many pesticides, in order to zap insects and fungi.
In Brazil, some regions get sprayed 30 times during the growing season. Also, unlike cereal grains, potato seeds are living tissue that can transfer disease from this year’s crop to next year’s. So seeds also get blasted. (Potato seeds are chunks of tubers grown last year. Each chunk must have an “eye” on its skin, a potential embryo for a new plant.)
Sorry! Back to the blight. The summer of 1845 was a cool and wet one. Blight struck Ireland, and parts of Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. Then it spread to Demark, Wales, Scotland, northern Italy, southern Norway and Sweden. Four months later, 772,204 square miles (2 million km2) of fields were ruined. It was a memorable and heartbreaking experience.
Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote about the Irish famine. The 1841 census revealed that Ireland was probably the most densely populated region in Europe, thanks to spuds. The census noted that half of the people resided in rather unpretentious affordable housing units — small, windowless, single room, mud cabins. In 1845, the fields were looking fine and healthy — until three weeks of wet and cool weather spoiled the party. The crop failure was partial. Fields of cereal crops were not harmed.
In 1846, the blight was severe, and the harvest of both spuds and grain was a poor one. They weren’t going to have enough seed potatoes to plant all the fields in the spring of 1847. Across much of Europe, the 1846 harvest was a total or partial failure. Black fields stretched for hundreds of miles, and the stench of rot was overwhelming. By September, not even folks with money could acquire food. They ate cabbage leaves and blackberries.
Across Europe, the winter of 1846-47 was extremely long and severe. The Thames was jammed with floating ice. By January, the Irish folks in county Mayo looked like skeletons. The sheep, cattle, poultry, and dogs were gone. The one remaining pig would not be long for this world. The blight in 1847 was light, but the planted acreage was just 20 percent of normal, for lack of seeds.
In 1848, all the land got planted, and the people were giddy with hope that their troubles were over. Things looked awesome, until the middle of June, when the wet weather would not stop. The blight was severe. In July, some fields would turn black overnight, and millions of ripe spuds rotted in the ground. Even spuds stored away before the blight rotted. Cereal crops were also damaged by heavy rains. There was little to harvest.
In the end maybe a million emigrated, and a million died. Woodham-Smith noted that mortality records were incomplete. She estimated that for every person who died of starvation, ten died from disease. The most popular pathogens were two types of “famine fever” — typhus and relapsing fever, both were spread by lice, and both were quite unpleasant. A bit less popular was dysentery, which was caused by contact with fecal borne pathogens.
Farmers rarely if ever have a plan B when their crops fail, or their granary is swiped. Their leaders may or may not come to their rescue. The Irish didn’t get much help. Earlier in this chapter, we looked at the San people of Botswana who easily survived a three year drought. Not being chained to one piece of land, and not being heavily addicted to monoculture crops, allows more options for survival — and a healthier, more enjoyable life.