We were chatting about potatoes in East Africa, as you do.
“They call them Irish,” said Shane, who was manning the reception desk in Dublin’s Irish Aid Voluteering & Information Centre. I had called in because the centre, in conjunction with Irish aid charity Vita, had been hosting a potato-themed photographic exhibition and related events around last month’s World Food Day.
Shane had spent a good deal of time in various East African countries where – most likely due to the presence of Irish missionaries and aid workers down through the years – “Irish” had become a synonym for potatoes (in much the same way that, when it arrived in Ireland first, the potato was often referred to as An Spáinneach – meaning the Spaniard – as it was they who had introduced the tuber to Europe). And while the potato is a largely non-traditional African crop, the vegetable which kept Irish populations fed for centuries – except, famously, when it didn’t, of course – is one which, it turns out, has a lot to offer countries in the African region.
Map showing the true size of Africa by Kai Krause. ‘Tis big alright.
(image in the public domain)
The potato is more efficient, more nutritious, and more profitable than any other staple crop… and is ideally suited to places where land is limited and labor abundant – conditions that characterize much of the developing world.
There’s a section in journalist and food critic Jay Rayner’s new book, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, which discusses the notion of comparative advantage. This is where, he explains, by dint of labour costs, climatic or other considerations, certain countries can produce certain goods better and more cheaply than elsewhere – he points to iPhones made in China and, foodwise, among other things, to crops grown in the corn belt of the Midwestern United States.
It’s part of his assault on those who blindly assume that local-is-best when it comes to food (people whom he also suspects are the proud possessors of said iPhones); his attempt, as he puts it, to “kick ten tons of crap out of the local food movement.” His point? It’s not that locally produced food is suddenly off the shopping list – there will always be cases where it’s the best choice we can make, and not just for reasons of taste, but because it’s also about food security and supporting local economies – but that local doesn’t always equate to sustainable and that imported foods – and the large-scale agriculture that may produce them – aren’t necessarily bad.
Nothing like a bit of good old-fashioned hyperbole:
in addition to the bold subtitle, the back-of-book blurb asserts that this volume will do no less than
“…change the way we shop, cook and eat forever”
Or something like that anyway.
They do say that every day’s a school day, and last Wednesday was a case in point. That was when we in Ireland and the U.K. learned all about an interesting new principle at work in our local food systems: the Horse-n-Beef Uncertainty Principle, where the purchase of a factory-processed supermarket beef burger could leave you uncertain as to how much beef (or pork or horse meat) that burger actually contained.
As it turns out, “often with other ingredients” covers a multitude