The financial woes of Ireland are regularly in the news these days, though a respectful respite seems thankfully to have been observed recently, perhaps in honour of St Patrick’s Day. But the country has gone through much worse in the past. In 1729, Irish writer Jonathan Swift proposed an ironic solution to the problem of what was seen as endemic Irish poverty. The poor, he suggested, should sell their children as food for the rich. Nobody took Swift up on his modest proposal, but if they had the effect could hardly have been more devastating than the famines which afflicted the country not long after, in the 1740s, and again a century later.
Both were due to the failure of the potato crop, the staple food of Ireland at the time. The latter famine in particular is a powerful, often repeated, example of the importance of crop diversity. Irish farmers depended on just a few potato varieties, all of which were susceptible to the fungus that causes late blight. When it arrived, as it was bound to, it turned them all to unpalatable mush in their muddy fields, with horrific consequences. A million people perished; another million emigrated.
Ireland was never the same again. But it couldn’t happen now, right? After all, varieties resistant to late blight were developed, thanks to modern plant breeding. Problem solved. No need for the Irish (and potato farmers the world over) to worry about late blight ever again.
Wrong. As Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, said about another fungus, late blight never sleeps. It’s always changing, mutating, adapting. It eventually broke through the defences of those early resistant varieties. And then those of the next lot. Superblight, or Blue 13, is its latest incarnation. And the best line of defence against it is provided by the Sárpo varieties developed in the 1950s by Dr Istavaán Sárvári (Sarpo = Sárvári + potato).
Dr Sárvári’s family is still breeding potatoes, and sending the best to Britain for testing. Their resistance to the latest version of late blight can be traced back to genes found in wild relatives of the potato collected in the ancestral home of the crop, Central and South America, by Nikolai Vavilov, the iconic Russian geneticist and plant collector. He scoured the world for crop diversity in the 1920s and 30s, and the thousands of samples he brought back home are still maintained in St Petersburg, in the genebanks of the institute which now so aptly bears his name.
We are proud at the Trust of having provided support over the past few years to the continued maintenance and documentation of this vital resource for breeders. Our own modest proposal is that the world’s development community seize the opportunity to secure, forever, collections such as the one where Vavilov’s potatoes are still painstakingly conserved, studied, and used in breeding.