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Energy Bookshelf: the potato famine has a myriad of lessons for our 21st century (climate) challenges

November 27th, 2017 · No Comments

We sometimes talk about the end of nature or treats to nature.

But nature, though it includes trembling subtleties, can be a son of a bitch. [p 238]

Humanity’s history is inextricably that of mankind’s relationship to the natural world and exploitation of nature for nourishment. And, with the explosion of human population over the past several hundred years, that relationship has both grown more complex in many ways and more remote from people (in developed nations) as fewer and fewer people are involved in agriculture.

Rob Dunn‘s Never Out of Season provides a compelling window on that complex relationship, with a powerful call for enhanced support for those who study plants (and threats to plants/agriculture) to help assure humanity’s ability to feed itself in the decades and centuries to come.  Critical issues include:

  • How a focus on maximizing productivity has fostered monocultures that create increased risk of catastrophic collapse.
  • That seed, disease, and insect ‘banks’ are critical to reducing risks of catastrophic collapse and maintaining tools to deal with a changing world —
    • from parasites attacking monocultures to human-driven climate change creating radically different growing environment.
    • Basic investments — from human capital to physical infrastructure to basic science — in these ‘banks’ are inadequate and, in fact, dwindling.
  • That, in fact, humanity needs expanded efforts:
    • from focus on an ecosystem (rather than stove-piped) understanding of (potential) crops (e.g., the plants, soils, insects, parasites, propagation, and other elements rather than simply the plant isolated in a greenhouse)
    • to building on/expanding the best of US land grant college relationships with agricultural extension agents in to a global (rather localized) set of relationships
    • to developing programs and tools to engage ever greater portions of humanity in collaborative efforts (such as Plant to better understand and share knowledge about agricultural (eco)systems.

Never out of season surprised me. Having casually opened it thinking that would it would be a discourse about the environmental damages caused by supplying strawberries (and other fruits/vegetables year-round to the wealthy around the world, Dunn provides a much richer look at the complexities of global agricultural — including a window on ‘how’ we got where we are along with case studies of various heroes (from those protecting seed banks (such as from both Stalin’s anti-science mania and Nazi Germany’s siege of Leningrad during World War II); and amid the Syrian Civil War today) to (activist) scientists working to understand crops (such as cassava) both to find paths to boost productivity and, as well, to prevent mass collapses (as occurred with potatoes during the Irish Potato Famine).

The Irish Potato Famine

As to the last, the section on the Potato Famine is revealing on multiple levels from how Western Europe ended up with a near mono-culture when it comes to potatoes as opposed to the 1000s of varieties in South America to the how scientists failed in understanding what was actually going on in Ireland.

Intellectually, a ‘favorite’ moment is a figurative slap of the head — being provided an explanation so clear that a bulb (preferably an LED rather than incandescent) immediately shines brightly over the head. Dunn’s eloquent writing of complex and intricate issues provided multiple such moments.  Returning to the Potato Famine, consider how potatoes moved from the New World to Europe.

  • Conquistadors had to decide, in the Andes, to gather samples to take to Europe.
    • Almost certainly, they did not take all.
  • The samples had to travel from the mountains to ports.
    • Almost certainly, not all survived the voyage.
  • The remaining samples had to survive a ship voyage (with rats, dampness, and otherwise).
    • Almost certainly, not all survived aboard ship.
  • What survived the voyage was planted by farmers without centuries of knowledge about potatoes, without native insects, without …
    • Almost certainly, not all planted potatoes thrived.
  • Europe ended up with a tiny sample of the “potato” as cultivated in South America,
    • and led to a monoculture of what became a key staple crop.

This straightforward path/explanation as to ‘why’ the potato moved, as it did, from South America to Europe is eloquently laid out in Never Out of Season yet is something that this reader — and likely others — never considered before.

Consider that in South America, a village might have dozens (or hundreds) of potato variants often with dozens of varieties within one plot. Disease hits one and the village still has dozens of varieties thriving. The farmers have experience, passed from generation to generation, about how to handle disease and choose ‘best’ seed potatoes for the coming season.

Europe necked down to just a few varieties and, in Ireland, truly sought to optimize the ‘best’ for maximum production to meet nutritional requirements of a burgeoning population. No mixed cultivation meant vulnerability to disease … and when disease came, devastation came in the form of the Irish Potato Famine, the effects of which are still felt today.


Rob Dunn is a masterful story teller, an accomplished scientist with deep knowledge, impassioned about opportunities that (could) exist, and seriously concerned about risks humanity faces.  Never Out of Season merits wide audiences — from policy-makers to high-school science classes to agronomists and, well, is a worthwhile read for anyone desirous of a captivating discussion of some of the most critical (and often least discussed) issues facing humanity.

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Tags: Energy · energy bookshelf