What “An Gorta Mor” (The Great Hunger in Ireland) Can Teach Us About the Urgent Need for Responsible Seafood

by Don Browne, published on The Center for Responsible Seafood (TCRS) online community.

As the U.S. celebrates another St. Patrick’s Day in parades, festivals and crowded bars throughout the country, one strand of the Irish Diaspora that doesn’t get a lot of recognition on this day or others is the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s. A watershed of both European and American history, the “Great Hunger” or “An Gorta Mor” led to the death of 1 million Irish, and the desperate mass exodus of 1.5 million Irish – mostly to America. Overnight, a country of 8 million people was cut in half. Today, there are just over 4 million people living in Ireland, and 44 million Americans of Irish ancestry – much of that can be traced back to emigration during An Gorta Mor.

In the present world where famines and food insecurity still exist, there is so much we can learn from the mistakes of the British government in addressing the crisis in their former colony during An Gorta Mor. And there are also great takeaways in terms of how responsible seafood can be an ultimate solution for addressing and even preventing famines and food insecurity.

1. Developing local coastal seafood economies and hence, local access to seafood. One of the biggest elementary questions about An Gorta Mor is – how could an island country have a famine when there is access to fish and seafood all around its borders (after all, it’s an ISLAND!)? There were also rivers running through the island in which the Irish people could fish for their sustenance – in theory. There is a simple answer to a simple question:

a. Ireland was occupied and ruled the British government. Their landlord class owned all the lands, including the prime real estate along the coastal areas and all other waterfronts. Fishing on these lands was considered poaching and violators were prosecuted by the full extent of the law.

b. Ireland in the 19th Century was a feudal system and the overwhelming majority of Irish were part of the peasant class. The native people, therefore, did not have the resources to afford the proper resources and learning for subsistence, let alone commercial fishing endeavors.

2. The last thing starving people want to eat is food that they are not accustomed to eating. Contrary to popular belief, you are not willing to eat “anything” if you are starving to death. Part of what contributed to the massive number of deaths were disease from eating soups and food donated from other cultures’ cuisines that the native stomachs rejected. This resulted in diarrhea and related diseases that spread like wildfire. In 1840s Ireland and in developing countries around the world, native populations have an aversion for fish and seafood – even in coastal and island communities because they don’t have the palette for fish and seafood since they don’t have access to it. Therefore, it’s absolutely critical that we as a global community need to come together to

a. advocate for accessible coastal space and resources for both subsistence and commercial fishing to address food insecurity and foster meaningful economic development.

b. make seafood accessible to local populations – especially our youth – to develop their palettes for fish & seafood. We could involve our chefs sourcing responsible seafood community to work with local populations on recipe development that incorporates local flavors and culinary traditions and safe cooking practices with minimal resources

3. Millions of dollars of food were being exported from Ireland. It sounds inhumane, even atrocious, but exporting was basic to the Irish economy as it is to all other national economies. Disrupting normal trade to provide immediate relief also meant causing an economic disaster that could’ve had even more harmful effects on the starving population, including the resources to allow those people to emigrate to other countries for survival and a healthier lifestyle. We as a global community of seafood professionals need to explore strategies for local and fair trade economic development so that a domestic seafood industry interdependent on domestic seafood consumption can be the norm and not a concept that is so foreign even in coastal and island societies.

4. Polarizing partisan politics was perhaps the greatest obstacle to providing relief to the famished populations in Ireland. The Tories – the modern equivalent of Conservative parties in most nations – was lobbying for immediate relief to help the landlord class in Ireland (their fellow Tories) avoid disaster and protect their estates from collapse. The Whigs – who you could compare to “Clinton Democrats” – consisted of the non-titled or non-noble working classes who ascended to higher stations through industry and entrepreneurship. They were in the majority and did not favor disrupting the regular economy to bring relief to a calamity that was caused in part by the landlord class and their archaic systems of doing business. These same Whigs were also followers of economist Thomas Malthus, who believed that God was punishing the Irish for their “fecklessness,” and therefore, we should let divine intervention run its course. As you may recall from Dickens, “if they are to die they should do it now and decrease the surplus population.” In this polarizing world of partisan “my way or the highway” worldviews and belief systems, the global responsible seafood community needs to assert the universal benefits of world where seafood systems are more sustainable and accessible – with no partisan politics allowed.

Oxfam International reports that 30 million people today are experiencing alarming levels of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in Northern Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. 10 million of them are facing emergency and famine conditions. And hunger and food insecurity is a problem throughout the world – even in the most developed nations. Acting locally, thinking globally, I urge all of you to learn the lessons of An Gorta Mor and help make a difference NOW. As a descendent of An Gorta Mor survivors who owes my very existence to the charity of Cherokee First Nationals in America and/or English and American Quakers, I also have an obligation to pay it forward.