No Small Potatoes. Part III.

Not all lessons that can be learned by insect farming community from potato farming community are positive. Unfortunately, the tragedy of the Irish Potato Famine is something that should also be kept in mind. Otherwise, there is a real danger of running into serious problems in the future.

Wide acceptance of potato was greatly beneficial for otherwise severely disadvantaged Irish peasants of the 18th-19th centuries. It allowed a significant improvement in nutrition and in an overall quality of life. As a result, rapid population growth followed. However, the socioeconomic structure of Irish society did not change. The majority of the population still consisted of landless peasants who had few meaningful rights and were at a mercy of their landlords. The peasants were forced by the system to subsist almost exclusively on potatoes while growing grains and other crops to pay rent for their land. Much of the payments were then exported, mostly to England.

The arrangement worked, until it didn’t. An invasive late blight pathogen Phytophthora infestans caused large-scale failures of potato crops. Landless tenants were faced with a choice between giving out grain as a rent payment and then starving, or eating the grains, being evicted for non-payment, and then also starving. On top of that, relief efforts by the British authorities were almost non-existent. Millions of people either died or emigrated, with the life of the migrants being no piece of cake as well. All-in-all, a reprieve offered to an average Irish peasant by potatoes proved to be unsustainable and short-lived.

The sad history of the Irish Potato Famine provides a vivid illustration of the dangers of relying on a simple silver-bullet solution to fix a complex socioeconomic problem. Introducing potatoes was great, but much more change was necessary to ensure sustainable development of Irish society. Yet, it is not unusual to hear enthusiastic claims about how eating insects (or at least feeding them to domestic animals) will solve all our problems forever and ever. Unfortunately, it will not. Insect farming is a valuable technology that should be encouraged and promoted. However, it will not be a game changer by itself. Sustainable development requires many different components; complex problems require complex solutions.