The Next Irish Potato Famine?

by Ashley Rector, Plant Pathology graduate

When a population’s main food source is wiped out, it can lead to worldwide changes that have lasting ripple effects. One instance that most people know of is the Irish Potato Famine. Late Blight of Potato decimated potato crops in Ireland, causing mass starvation and migration in the mid-1800s. Those that left came to the United States. This event in history greatly influenced the modern German and Irish demographic of the northeast United States. It also indirectly influenced politics. The 35th president, John F. Kenny, is a descendent of a Famine Immigrant.

Today, another staple food is at risk: the banana. The fungal pathogen, Mycosphaerella fijensis, causes Black Sigatoka Disease of banana. It causes significant reduction in leaf area. Yield loss can be greater than 50%. It is because of this, there is a possibility that within our lifetime the Cavendish banana we find on grocery store shelf will no longer be an option. The Cavendish is seedless which makes each banana is genetically identical to the one it came from. This lack of genetic diversity has made it impossible for the fruit to outcompete pathogens.

Each year 17 million tons of banana are globally exported, almost all of them being of the Cavendish variety. It’s the fourth most valuable crop in the world, following rice, wheat, and milk. Around the world bananas are a main source of nutrition and a main source of an income. If the Cavendish were to go extinct, we currently do not have a replacement for it even though there are hundreds of varieties, parts of the world that survive on banana would face economic, health, and cultural issues.

As we’ve seen from the Irish Potato famine when a crop that supports the population both economically and physically fails, then people disperse to areas where they can survive. If countries, like Ecuador, were no longer able to supply the world with a banana, it’s very likely that people around the world may begin to migrate. This would change demographics and present new challenges for everyone. Introducing new people to new cultures can alter history in drastic ways.

About me:

Even though I have an interest in Plant Pathology, I plan on going to Medical School. I believe that phytopathology will create major ripple effects in the health community in the future. Malnourishment and population shifts caused by major food source extinction are just a couple examples.

This blog post was an assignment for Societal Issues: Pesticides, Alternatives and the Environment (PLNTPTH 4597). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the class, Department of Plant Pathology or the instructor.

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