Monoculture and the Irish Potato Famine: Cases of missing genetic variation (1 of 3)

Drawing of starving familyLack of genetic variation in Irish potatoes contributed to the severity of the Irish potato famine, which devastated Ireland’s population and economy. Today, evolutionary theory tells us that relying on crops with low genetic variation can lead to disaster. Heeding the warnings of scientists and history may help us prevent wide-scale crop devastation due to changing environmental conditions.

In the 1800s, the Irish solved their problem of feeding a growing population by planting potatoes. Specifically, they planted the “lumper” potato variety. And since potatoes can be propagated vegetatively, all of these lumpers were clones, genetically identical to one another.

The lumper fed Ireland for a time, but it also set the stage for human and economic ruin. Evolutionary theory suggests that populations with low genetic variation are more vulnerable to changing environmental conditions than are diverse populations. The Irish potato clones were certainly low on genetic variation, so when the environment changed and a potato disease swept through the country in the 1840s, the potatoes (and the people who depended upon them) were devastated.





Read more about the history of the potato famine at Access Excellence.

• This drawing originally appeared in The Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849

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