Open Polytechnic potato blight research published
The potato blight that affected Ireland in the 1840s played itself out sixty years later in New Zealand, causing a devastating effect on Māori communities according to research recently published by Associate Professor Graham Harris from the Natural Resources Centre at The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand.
Graham’s research, entitled Te Paraiti: The 1905-1906 potato blight epidemic in New Zealand and its effects on Māori communities, discusses how ancestral Māori were innovative horticulturalists, first adapting the tropical kūmara to New Zealand’s temperate climate, and later successfully adopting commercial production of European crops, including the potato.
By the 1840s Māori-grown produce played a significant part in feeding the local European population, and was also being exported overseas.
But during the 1860s a combination of the land wars and a restriction on Māori finding new land to cultivate their crops saw a decline in their agricultural activities.
This - combined with low-grade seeds producing lower yields; Europeans increasing their own agricultural production; crop failures as Māori abandoned their old practice of planting by the stars resulting in crops being planted at the wrong time; and having to work for wages and give up growing crops due to land losses – spelled the end of Māori agricultural prosperity.
“By the late nineteenth century Māori had become dependant on the potato as their main staple crop,” says Graham. “When the potato blight epidemic hit New Zealand between 1905 and 1906 it had a devastating effect on Māori communities. The potato blight was a significant event in New Zealand’s history, but today, 100 years later, little is known of it.”
“The effects of the destruction of potato crops by blight was further compounded in 1906 by summer frosts that destroyed maize and kūmara crops, and damaged those potato crops that had survived the blight,” says Graham.
By mid-1906 the then Native Department, assisted by government departments such as Justice, Health, and the New Zealand Police, had swung into action to ensure that vegetable seeds and blight resistant seed potatoes were dispatched to Māori communities to prevent starvation.
“Aside from the availability of blight fungicides by the early 1900s, there were two important contrasts between the potato blight epidemics in Ireland and New Zealand,” says Graham. “Firstly, although Māori were reliant on the potato as a primary food source, they were not usually totally dependant on it as the Irish were. Secondly, the New Zealand government provided considerable assistance to Māori, whereas in Ireland, the British government of the day did little to alleviate the situation.”
Graham has dedicated much of his research career into how ancestral Māori cultivated their crops, and is an Honorary Research Associate of Lincoln University as part of the prestigious National Centre for Advanced Bio-Protection Technologies (CoRE), and is currently undertaking a five year research project funded by the Centre to look into early Māori production and storage of kūmara.
His interest in how indigenous cultures manage their traditional food sources recently saw Graham present a concurrent session on the traditional and adopted food crops of Māori at the Terre Madre World meeting of traditional food producers in Italy in October.
“Over 6000 delegates, including 1000 chefs, representing 164 countries were at the four day event,” explains Graham. “I have attended these events for a couple of years now, but a real highlight for me this year was travelling with five representatives of Te Waka Kai Ora – Māori organic food producers, who practice the traditional methods of farming, and who networked with other indigenous food growers at the event. It was also a fantastic opportunity for me to talk to indigenous people from South America about traditional sweet potato and potato crops to further inform my research.”