From 1845 to 1852, Ireland suffered through one of the worst famines in history when potato blight ruined the island nation’s crops year after year. The country’s eight million citizens were highly reliant on the staple food product, and around a million people died in that time frame, while another two million migrated, forever altering the course of Irish history. As you might have heard, Australia is currently in the midst of its own potato famine more than 150 years later, although this one was caused by extreme weather; heavy rain and the resulting floods wiped out young crops earlier this year, and in most places the soil is still too wet to allow for replanting of crops.
The plants have proven durable in Australian climates, even though they’re native to South America, but the flooding was just too much. A few crops of the brushed potato—the most commonly eaten—in a few regions survived, but the market has been so decimated that these farmers are now getting five times their normal rate for their crops, and consumers are paying skyrocketing prices on the other end.
With the incredible variety of nutritional options we now have, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will die as a result of this particular famine, but its occurrence—which follows in the wake of global shortages of limes and then avocados—should ring some alarm bells. First, as to the cause of the Australian potato famine and others like it, we simply cannot keep delaying the changes we as a global community need to make in terms of attempting to combat the climate changes we’ve made to the earth’s ecosystems. We need to accept the fact that many of our current and former industrial and agricultural practices have done significant damage, and work to alter our behavior and perhaps begin a healing process before its too late. Secondly, we should probably, all of us, take a look at our diets and try to incorporate more variety.
The fact that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians eat 63 kilos of potatoes per year is rather shocking. Sure, they’re healthy, but it’s been widely argued by doctors and scientists everywhere that the more variety we have in our diets, the more likely we are to meet our nutritional needs. Lastly, we as individuals need to recognize the flaw in a model of food distribution that is centralized and subject to such vicissitudes of weather and market economics. We can’t and shouldn’t rely on it, if for no other reason than the fact that our reliances only enables it to continue unaltered.
But another reason we shouldn’t rely on supermarkets is the fact that it’s actually pretty easy to grow an even better alternative to store-bought brushed potatoes ourselves. I’m referring to their under appreciated cousins the sweet potatoes. As explained in this article, they are much healhier for us (they are exceptional sources of beta-carotene, vitamin C, dietary fiber, and the minerals manganese and potassium); come in several varieties (in addition to the ubiquitous orange Beauregards, there are species of yellow, white, and purple); and store very well (after being cured to both sweeten and “seal” them, they last months).
As an addition to your farms, sweet potatoes are a no-brainer crop. Despite a reputation for doing better in humid, tropical zones, they actually do well almost anywhere, although they’ll switch from a perennial to an annual for some of us, and we may need to heat trap them in the coldest growing zones. And once they’ve gotten going, they’re very durable in a wide variety of conditions, from loose sandy soil with regular rain to clay with less rain, even withstanding droughts. They’re even fairly simple to get started, via the creation of slips.
Crop shortages and outright famines are sure to be more common in the coming years, especially as we continue degrade our ecosystems and reduce the crop diversity, making plants and farms far more susceptible to extreme weather conditions, blights, or some other unforeseen ailment. Farmers have been adopting the ideals of Permaculture for a multitude of reasons, and it seems that its unique ability to stand guard against future widespread food supply interruptions is becoming more and more obviously one of the better reasons.