Garden Notes: Building a better (much-utilized, taken for granted) potato

Few events in history have been studied more than An Gorta Mor, the famine years that forever changed Ireland in the mid-19th century.

In 1841, two-thirds of the Irish depended on Lumper potatoes to keep even the poorest families well-fed and healthy. George Tauber declared the Irish cottier children rosy-cheeked, taller than average, smart as whips and musically gifted. He went on to describe the Irish women as the most beautiful creatures in the world. (The potcheen, made from fermented potatoes, might or might not have enhanced his judgment.)

On March 30, 1849, four years into the famine, 600 barefoot Irish endured a cruel, swirling wind to walk a narrow County Mayo path for 11 dark miles from Louisborough to Delphi Lodge. The story put round was that food would be distributed at the lodge the next morning. When the Irish approached the lodge, Colonel Hogrove, a member of the Board of Guardians, who administered the Poor Relief, and Captain Primrose, the local Poor Law Inspector, were at lunch and could not be disturbed.

Eventually, a footman was dispatched from the lodge to tell the gathering no food would be distributed. The Irish turned faces to the wind and struggled back to Louisborough. Many of them, weakened by starvation, died from exposure. Their bodies were found along the path. Some of them had grass in their mouths.

Today, potatoes are wasted at three times the rate of meat. Here in the United States, we dump 60 percent of all U.S. grown potatoes. Surveys show Americans throw away 6 billion pounds of food every month.

One million tons of potatoes are lost during transport, storage and processing. It is estimated half of every potato that makes it to industrial production (pre-cut French fries, chips or mashed potato flakes) is wasted. To make matters worse, the rotting vegetables create methane gas, shown to contribute to climate change.

Over the last decade, Simplot, an Idaho agribusiness, has developed potatoes resistant to Late Blight, the fungus that caused the Irish Potato Famine.

“Late Blight is like a dragon spewing flames, burning everything in its path.” CIP pathologist Edward French wrote in “Notes from a Potato Watcher.”

On top of the resistance to Late Blight, the new spuds are engineered to have fewer black spots, resist bruising and have a longer storage capacity. Simplot used a “green” genetic engineering process “similar to traditional breeding” to develop the varieties.

“It’s potato genes in the potato,” Havor Baker, vice president and general manager of Simplot Plant Sciences said. “The modifications were made by silencing existing genes or adding genes from other types of potatoes. There are clear benefits for everybody. We’ve harnessed the strongest traits within the potato family and we’re now set to address global potato challenges.”

The new varieties have been approved for sale in the United States by the EPA, USDA and the FDA.

Contact Teresa Futrick at esroyllek@hotmail.com