The Death of Potatoes

The Death of Potatoes

I’m currently (still) reading John Christopher’s ‘The Death of Grass‘. Having watched, and read, ‘The Road’ and seen films like ‘The Book of Eli’ and ’28 Days Later’, I’m finding ‘Grass’ far more harrowing and grim to read. Written in 1952 and very much a vision of the time, the story deals with a small group seeking a home away from the rapidly declining state of society in the face of the progressive and possibly irreversible demise of all grass stocks. Without basic food stuffs and common land animals (due to lack of feed), a massive population face starvation and death in just a few short months in a disaster spanning the world. Within days all vestige of society, even in Britain, melts away. Law has no place and the rule of the mob and the gang, backed by possession of firearms, becomes the new order.

Given the historical truth of the time, of a Britain struggling with rationing in the wake of the Second World War, the visions of ‘Grass’ are not so hard to grasp. And yet, the brutality and barbarism portrayed make for uneasy reading at times. I have been reading this on and off for a short while (I tend to take breaks from books and read other books, which in turn may experience breaks of their own), but now I can’t stop. I need to know what happens and I get the distinct feeling, with only 30 pages to go, that it won’t end well.

Today, on the Belfast Telegraph web site, I read that scientists had mapped the genome of potatoes. With this information, the scientists hoped to rapidly advance the breeding of potatoes. Given the background of ‘Grass’ I fear, in the way we all do when spoon fed news about (bad/good) science, that messing with the DNA of the common potato does not necessarily mean that society will be better off. Modify the wrong bit of the genome and we might kill the potato off altogether / turn it into a rampaging parasite that kills off everything else / trigger latent defence mechanisms that make it poisionous / bring about the Zombie Apocalypse.

The Chung-Li virus in ‘Grass’ started in Chinese rice stocks, but rapidly brought an end to all types of grass. Science likely helped in its creation, and science couldn’t do anything to prevent it, only serving to give false hope when it dealt with less virulent varieties. When we argue over whether we should keep tiny reserves of Small Pox alive, for the sake of future medicine, and muck around with DNA like some sort of genetic jazz, can we be a little too comfortable about our scientific control of the world around us?

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