The Irish famine of the 19th century resulted from a similar combination of poverty, dependence on the potato and the threat of late blight.
“Ireland was a large-scale food exporter before the famine and continued to export food during the famine,” said Kevin O’Neill, Irish studies historian at Boston College.
The problem was the Irish poor could not afford those foods, such as beef and high-quality grain, noted O’Neill. The poor could afford only potatoes, which grow on low-quality land. When the potato crop failed, they had no money for other food.
“The Irish nationalist John Mitchel claimed that the famine was an intentional act of mass murder,” said O’Neill. “Others, of course, disagree. What we can say with confidence is that U.K. government response to the potato failure made a very bad situation much worse and that anti-Irish attitudes played a role in that response.”
In the modern world, organizations like the United Nations can step in to avert famines, said O’Neill. Improved transportation systems and information about crop disasters also reduce the likelihood of another potato famine.
On the other hand, the recent histories of North Korea, Somalia and Sudan show that even if the world is willing to give food, the combination of poverty and repressive governments can block those efforts.
Regardless of any government, nature is the ultimate ruler of the potato harvest. Changing weather patterns could result in the rise of a different potato plague.
Jacquie van der Waals, plant pathologist at the University of Pretoria, suggested the threat of late blight might drop in regions that are becoming warmer and drier, since the disease thrives in cool, damp conditions.
However, climate change may benefit another disease, according to van der Waals.
“The leaf disease that is most likely to be intensified by climate change is early blight, caused by Alternaria alternata,” said van der Waals. “This disease is most severe in warm conditions, particularly in alternating wet and dry spells, which is exactly what we are expecting to encounter with climate change.”
South Africa has already seen a substantial increase in the incidence and severity of early blight over the past decade, according to van der Waals. Other researchers have observed an increase in the disease in the Andes. Both Africa and the Andes are regions Forbes identified as at-risk for potato disasters.