Another potato famine
By Trent Loos
We continually tell ourselves that we study history in order to understand what mistakes that were made so that we don’t repeat them. I am not sure if that is the case at all or if we do it simply to learn how to make history repeat itself. Regardless, I must share a little bit of history that I did not fully understand until I completed my recent trip to Ireland for the Alltech Global 500 beef and dairy meeting.
I am confident that if you ask any semi-educated person in the United States about the Great Potato Famine of Ireland, most could tell you that a disease destroyed the potato crop, which led to mass starvation. Yes, all of that would be mostly true but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
What I learned is that the potato blight resulted in a loss of about 40 percent of the potato crop. That was a bad deal but was confounded by the fact that the Irish government decided not to increase imports or decrease exports of food during this shortage, which could have helped to ensure food security for the people of the country.
News of the first blight in the potato crop reached Sir William Peel, the Prime Minister of Ireland, in 1845. His initial response was, “The remedy is the removal of all impediments to the import of all kinds of human food—that is, the total and absolute repeal forever of all duties on all articles of subsistence.” He was referencing the 1815 corn laws that put extremely high tariffs on imported food.
By the summer of 1846 only one fourth of the potato crop survived and the famine was well underway.
In June of the same year, Lord John Russell became Prime Minister of a minority Whig government. The Whigs believed in the policies of laissez faire economics and therefore were “committed to free trade and were opposed to interfering with normal commerce, either by importing cheap foodstuffs or, as was the done in previous crises, by preventing the export of food.” Under normal circumstances, such policies would be appropriate, but during the famine they only led to disaster.
From 1846 to 1851 almost a million people died and even more emigrated out of Ireland because of the famine. From a population of eight million before the famine, almost one and a half million people left the country. Many of those who emigrated climbed aboard ships that were so unsafe they were commonly referred to as “coffin ships.” Many more died en route to America and Canada. The poor had to fit in the spaces they could find and many ships were overcrowded and rampant with disease. It is estimated that some 100,000 people died en route to North America. The famine left a legacy of emigration that continued until recently. As many as 70 million people worldwide can claim Irish decent. This means that not only did the famine affect Ireland, it also shaped the face of many nations.
While every other person you poll might tell you that potato blight led to the worse disaster in modern history, these human deaths have much less to do with crop failures than poor food policies. It was a result of government controlling lives without regard for the effect of their policy on the people of the nation.
I completely believe in free enterprise and less government intervention. As it relates to the most recent acquisitions of United States food production entities by foreign investments, I want to say this: We must never lose sight of the fact that domestic food production is a means of national security.
Think about what the last large, domestic investment in food production was. Most of the recent large influxes of capital in this industry have been from foreign companies.
While I do not want to promote government intervention in making it happen, I am asking the question: Why is the most vital defense of our nation not seeing more U.S. investment? The answer is simple: We have too much government intervention regarding cost of compliance and it is simply not worth the risk.
Should we not learn from our Irish cousins that a nation that cannot feed itself stands at risk? The real shame of the situation is that we have an abundance of natural resources necessary to ensure food security indefinitely with proper management, but—as is the case in European history—it is poor food policies that put us at risk.
We don’t need another food famine in this country, yet that seems to be the direction we are heading with our policies. Don’t wait for it; make sure it doesn’t happen.
Editor’s note: Trent Loos is a sixth generation United States farmer, host of the daily radio show, Loos Tales, and founder of Faces of Agriculture, a non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food. Get more information at www.FacesOfAg.com, or email Trent at firstname.lastname@example.org.