From Potato Famine – to 'Famine-busing' Potato


From Potato Famine – to ‘Famine-busing’ Potato

Experts from Irish Aid concentrate with local farmers on potato seed-selection. The potato was not unknown in Malawi, but the crop had degenerated over the years.

Friday, 19 April 2013
8:14 AM GMT

If you live in a country which is threatened by famine because the staple local crop can fail – then you would be delighted to diversify and to have a back-up crop: just in case. And this happens to be exactly the situation with Malawi – a country lying some hundreds of miles to the north of South Africa. Most of the population are subsistence-farmers, and maize is the staple diet. But if drought occurs instead of the expected ‘rainy season’, then the maize-crop fails. However, recently farmers have indeed been ‘taking out insurance’, and cultivating an alternative crop. This actually is: the potato.

It is Irish Aid – our State agency for overseas development – which has been spear-heading this agricultural advance in Malawi. And who ever dreamt that the potato – once failing so disastrously here at home – would one day be scientifically adapted as a “famine-buster” elsewhere ?

Experts from Irish Aid concentrate with local farmers on potato seed-selection. The potato was not unknown in Malawi, but the crop had degenerated over the years. Farmers are shown how to pinpoint the best plants in the field, and are persuaded – no east task ! – to discard all the weak ones, or ones susceptible to blight. Meanwhile, new varieties are being introduced – particularly ones resistant to disease.


“Potatoes can be reaped before they reach full maturity” – if famine looms; “so after just two months, harvest can begin” (Information : Edel Kennedy, Irish Independent). By 2015, 55,000 Malawian farmers are expected to be involved in the scheme.

It is encouraging to find that, even after Recession, the greater number of our people still support the Government’s present budgeting for overseas aid. “Some 80 per cent of respondents to the survey agreed it was important for Ireland’s international reputation that the Government kept its pledge to allocate 0.7 per cent of national income to overseas aid by 2015”, says Mary Fitzgerald, commenting on a new survey (11/9/2012 Irish Times).

Adds the director of Dochas, an umbrella group of more than 40 development organizations which sponsored this Ipsos MRBI poll : “There has been very little change over the last three years in this very high level of public support…This result shows that, despite continued difficulties, the Irish public’s support for international development co-operation has remained resolute”.

The positive endorsement of overseas aid can be attributed to a strand of generosity and fellow-feeling for those worse off than ourselves – to be found at all levels of our population. It is the same feeling of concern which prompts people to purchase ‘fair-traded’ groceries or which supports the work of a church organization like Trocaire (a word meaning ‘compassion / mercy’).

Trocaire has recently introduced quite imaginative “Gifts Of Change” for people living in the poorest countries – gifts which in themselves are agents of development. “The small gift of a weaving loom gives women not only financial independence, but helps them maintain their culture – by creating traditional dress”, reports Lorraine Keane, from Guatemala (Irish Catholic).

“Another Gift Of Change this year is: ‘Safe Motherhood’ – where you can provide an area with a mid-wife. Before this project, an average of 25 mothers died in childbirth every year – and this year no one died”.

“The Irish are renowned for their generosity”, this correspondent is glad to report. “And even now – when everybody is tightening their belts – they are giving”.


Trocaire is to be commended for its efforts to initiate our own younger generation into this ‘culture of giving’ – by distributing little collection-boxes in the schools.

It does this during the season of Lent: 40 days of preparation for Good Friday / Easter Sunday, when we commemorate Jesus dying and rising. All Christians prepare themselves during Lent for that upcoming celebration, by trying to once again school themselves to be loyal followers of Jesus. They reflect on how, in order to complete his life-task, Jesus was forced to undergo suffering and death. And so during Lent Christians take up practices of self control – in order to be found spiritually in peak condition or ‘in shape’ when challenges come. Many people cut back on, or ‘give up’, luxuries.

But of course it is also important to ‘give to’ – and so we are always urged to pass on to the poor any savings we make through giving up luxury items. After all, Jesus was a ‘man for others’. His message was that we are to be as concerned for the well-being of our fellow human beings, as we are for our own. Each of us too is to become a ‘person for others’.

And that is why we introduce young people to the habit of Christian giving. Especially when their attention is drawn to people far worse-off than themselves – among them, perhaps, youngsters their own age – their natural thoughtfulness and generosity will respond.

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