The potato quickly took the place of other crops as a food staple because it was a more reliable crop than wheat, which suffered as a food crop when the damp climates of Europe prevented proper ripening. Potatoes furthered both an agrarian revolution already underway in the early 17th century, and a population increase in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. As a result, more and more farmers were drawn from subsistence farming into profit-driven economies. The agrarian revolution, stimulated by the potato, was integral to the Industrial Revolution.
Ironically, the dependable potato was responsible for one of the most horrifying famines of the last 200 years. Introduced into Ireland in the mid-1700s, the potato proved to be an ideal crop for its environment. Ireland gets an average of 60 inches of precipitation each year, in general too much for potatoes. However, the precipitation is mostly in the form of soft misty showers, which keep the air cool and the soil moist.
By the 1800s, Irish peasants were eating a daily average of 10 potatoes per person. Potatoes supplied about 80 percent of the calories in their diet. The peasants used potato fodder to feed their animals, animals that provided milk, meat and eggs to supplement the peasants’ diet. This dependence on one food crop was dangerous, but no other crop had ever proved to be as reliable.
In the 1840s, disaster struck. Three successive years of late blight, the microscopic fungus Phytophthora infestans, and heavy rains rotted the potato crops in the ground. Without potatoes, both the peasants and animals went hungry. And when the animals died for lack of food, milk, meat and eggs were no longer available. It is estimated that more than one million of Ireland’s 8 million inhabitants died of starvation; almost 2 million emigrated. The population of Ireland was reduced by almost one-fourth and has never regained its former numbers to this day.