The Irish Potato Famine, could it happen again?

Soil Science Society of America

WASHINGTON - With St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, thoughts turn to the Irish experience of the 1800s. This includes the devastating conditions in Ireland that led many to the U.S.

No matter how you slice, dice, or prepare potatoes, they are packed with nutrients.

The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) March 1 Soils Matter blog post explains the agricultural lessons behind the Irish Potato Famine.

Starting in September 1845, a potato disease ravaged fields and left behind shriveled, inedible tubers. Scientists have since attributed the potato blight to a quick-spreading strain of a soil fungus.

“A single infected potato plant could infect thousands more in just a few days,” says Jean E. McLain, University of Arizona.

In Ireland, fields generally contained one crop, year-after-year: the Lumper potato. This made the plants in Irish fields more susceptible to disease. “Conditions were ripe for the fungus to thrive at the expense of farmers and their families,” McLain explains.

With all fields planted with the same crop, Irish farmers were dependent on the income–and sustenance–of their only crop. When the crop failed, the farmers failed.

The results were devastating, as starving tenant families nationwide were evicted from their lands. By 1851, an estimated 1.5 million Irish had died from the effects of the famine, with the highest death rates among children under five years of age and the elderly.

But this tragedy needn’t be repeated. “Armed with this knowledge, researchers and farmers alike are improving and adopting practices like crop rotation, intercropping, and increasing crop diversity.”

To read the entire blog post, visit