Posts Tagged ‘invasive species’

The Potato – Egalitarian Crop?

February 15, 2011

Cultural Materialism – ‘an anthropological school of thought (or “research strategy”) that says that the best way to understand human culture is to examine material conditions – climate, food supply, geography, etc.’ (link)

From Charles C. Mann’s 1491, an interesting perspective on the potato; another foodplant that ‘doesn’t belong‘ outside (perhaps) of its home in South America, but was adopted – apparently – for the relative social benefits it conferred when compared to the other major introduced species feeding the growth of civilisation:

The staple crop of the [Peruvian] highlands was the potato, which unlike maize regularly grows at altitudes of 14,000 feet; the tubers, cultivated in hundreds of varieties, can be left in the ground for as long as a year (as long as the soil stays above 27°F), to be dug up when needed. Even frozen potatoes could be used. After letting freezing night temperatures break down the tubers’ cell walls, Andean farmers stomped out the water content to make dried chuño, a nigh-indestructible foodstuff that could be stored for years. (The potato’s cold tolerance spurred its embrace by European peasants. Not only did potatoes grow in places where other crops could not, the plant was an ally in smallholders’ ceaseless struggle against the economic and political elite. A farmer’s barnful of wheat, rye, or barley was a fat target for greedy landlords and marauding armies; buried in the soil, a crop of potatoes could not be easily seized.) (pp.225-6)

More info from Wikipedia:

Following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the second half of the 16th century. The staple was subsequently conveyed by European mariners to territories and ports throughout the world. The potato was slow to be adopted by distrustful European farmers, but soon enough it became an important food staple and field crop that played a major role in the European 19th century population boom.[7]


Across most of northern Europe, where open fields prevailed, potatoes were strictly confined to small garden plots because field agriculture was strictly governed by custom that prescribed seasonal rhythms for plowing, sowing, harvesting and grazing animals on fallow and stubble. This meant that potatoes were barred from large-scale cultivation because the rules allowed only grain to be planted in the open fields.[29] In France and Germany government officials and noble landowners promoted the rapid conversion of fallow land into potato fields after 1750. The potato thus became an important staple crop in northern Europe. Famines in the early 1770s contributed to its acceptance, as did government policies in several European countries and climate change during the Little Ice Age, when traditional crops in this region did not produce as reliably as before.[30][31] At times when and where most other crops failed, potatoes could still typically be relied upon to contribute adequately to food supplies during colder years.[32]

I suppose a key factor undermining the potato’s egalitarian potential is its storability*: if it can be stockpiled (to any degree – even if less so than grains) this basically invites an elite group to come along, stick surpluses in a guarded barn and deny access to anybody refusing to pay tribute (as Richard Manning put it: ‘Agriculture was not so much about food as it was about the accumulation of wealth’). Naturally, this would only work if they also found ways to deny access to comparable plants freely available in the wild. (Destroying non-agricultural land to plant more potatoes would be a good start…) Here’s either Ray Mears or Gordon Hillman writing in Wild Food, the book accompanying the BBC series:

Roots were an extremely important food source for our ancestors. In Britain we have more than 90 indigenous species of edible root of which most were probably used by the combined populations across the country. Evan an individual band of hunter-gatherers probably used 20-30 species in the course of their annual round. Compare this to our present-day diet, in which root foods are dominated by a single introduced species – the potato – and in which our cultivated carrots, turnips, swedes and radishes were probably much later additions, domesticated in the Mediterranean Basin from where they were introduced into Britain, although wild forms were native here. The bland taste of these domestic forms probably appeals to a lot of palates in contrast to the broad range of distinctive and often strong flavours offered by wild roots. (pp.80-1)

Of course, decentralised self-sufficiency and a degree of social equality aren’t much good to you if you’re dead. Ask the Irish about the dangers of relying too heavily on a few varieties of non-native foodplants. Not that they had much choice in the matter:

The Celtic grazing lands of… Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. The British colonised… the Irish, transforming much of their countryside into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market at home… The British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of… Ireland… Pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. Eventually, cows took over much of Ireland, leaving the native population virtually dependent on the potato for survival.[25]

If cultures are what they eat, what kind of food staples would lead to the least hierarchical social organisation? The above seems to suggest: as many different ones as possible, and the more uncontrollable (perishable), localised and wild the better.

Food for Freedom!


* – Indeed, Mann doesn’t mention that conquistadors later made use of it as a ‘convenient food for slaves in the Spanish silver mines and sailors on the Spanish galleons’ (link) – in this instance the plant acted less as an ‘ally’ than a collaborator with the enemy in the indigenous struggle against a foreign ‘economic and political elite’.

Getting Intimate

May 24, 2010

via Ran, a great Sharon Astyk piece, going over a lot of the ground I’m trying to cover here: ‘Getting Intimate With My Weeds‘. This in particular sounds familiar:

As the soils heal and grow, some of those that do best in disturbed and disrupted sites are beginning to fade away.

Working to undisturb the disturbance… Preparing the way for those-who-come after… She also sees humans as ‘a weedy species’:

We too like disturbance, crop up in prolific numbers and invade new habitats without regard for the natives.

(Though as a good Quinnian I balk at the reference to an all-encompassing ‘humanity’ and am beginning to wonder if the many cultures of our species mightn’t be better suited to properly established, Old Growth communities.)

Great quotes on invasive species from Edible Forest Gardens author David Jacke:

If you understand succession ecology, you will understand that there’s no way a plant or animal alone can be responsible for the way it behaves. Invasion is only possible in the context of a certain kind of ecosystem situation. The first cause of succession is the availability of a site or niche. If there’s no site or niche available, no invasion can occur…. If invasion is not succession then what the hell is it? [...] most plants that are considered invasive are disturbance adapted species. (original link)

I had an interesting dinnerparty conversation where I picked up on some people badmouthing an ‘invasive species’ and continued their line of thought with tricksy earnestness: “Yeah those damn foreigners coming over and stealing all the jobs of our native-borns. They should all go back where they came from before they get what’s coming to them” to expose the curious parallels with the language of racism and genocide. I think I managed to make it thought-provoking rather than snide and sarcastic – though some were clearly baffled rather than enlightened…

Anyway, I feel like Astyk has given me the opportunity to confess what a newbie I am to all this: it’s only been about a year and a half since I started to pay proper attention to plants and I’ve made slow progress. Astyk is way ahead of me in terms of direct experience and nuance tempered by reality. I’ve come to (descended to?) a lot of this from headspace and philosophising based on things I’ve read that made sense to me – ‘made sense’ while my actual senses gathered dust on the bookshelf (thanks DA) – so consider yourselves warned: I may at times spill over into groundless ideology and become one of Bill Mollison’s (and the soil’s) enemies:

I can easily teach people to be gardeners, and from them, once they know how to garden, you’ll get a philosopher. But I could never teach people to be philosophers – and if I did, you could never make a gardener out of them.

When you get deep ecologists who are philosophers, and they drive cars and take newspapers and don’t grow their own vegetables, in fact they’re not deep ecologists – they’re my enemies.

But if you get someone who looks after himself and those around him – like Scott Nearing, or Masanobu Fukuoka – that’s a deep ecologist. He can talk philosophy that I understand. People like that don’t poison things, they don’t ruin things, they don’t lose soils, they don’t build things they can’t sustain. (source, via)

… but I’m working to avoid that pitfall. Hopefully I can provide a useful ‘Idiot’s Guide’ along the way :)


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