The potato plants growing in these white sacks, lined up in the courtyard of the Musée de la Chase et de la Nature, are an art installation, a history lesson and an agricultural manifesto. A montage of text and images on an adjoining wall introduces the three strands of the story that the artist has chosen to tell, but each leads to many different narratives.
The title of this installation by Swedish artist Åsa Sonjasdotter is Une histoire de météorologie, de nourriture et de révolution – a history (or story) of meteorology, food and revolution. The story starts in June 1783 with the eruption of the Laki volcanic fissure in Iceland. The lava and poisonous gases spewed from the fissure over an eight month period devastated the island’s agriculture and it is estimated that a quarter of the country’s population died in the resulting famine. The indirect effects of the eruption stretched way beyond Iceland as a dark, haze of ash and sulphur particles spread over much of the northern hemisphere, blocking out sunlight and disrupting weather patterns for several years. Extreme winters followed summer heat waves and crop failures added to the hardships of already vulnerable rural communities. Cereal crops were particularly badly affected and soaring bread prices hit the urban poor hard. In France, where rebellion was already simmering, the volcanic eruption helped to tip the country into revolution.
That’s where the potato comes in to the story. Reformers, led by Antoine Parmentier, had already identified potatoes as a reliable, high yielding crop that could help give food security for the poor but farmers had been slow to adopt the novelty. Parmentier gained royal support for his trials of potato cultivation so he was immediately suspect after the revolution, but the Convention committee charged with responsibility for food supplies recognised the potential of potatoes and Parmentier was rehabilitated. By order of the committee, made on 1er Ventose of year II of the revolutionary calendar (19th February 1794) the ornamental flower beds of the Tuileries and Luxembourg gardens were cleared and planted with potatoes. With the restoration of the monarchy the roses were restored to the Tuileries but by then the potato was well established on the tables of rich and poor alike.
The third strand of Åsa Sonjasdotter’s story is the loss of biological diversity in modern agriculture. The Saucisse, Vitelotte and Bonnotte potatoes growing in these sacks are varieties that sustained peasant farmers and urban workers over two centuries, helped to ward off famine and fueled the Revolution. Now these traditional land races with their colourful, flavourful and knobbly tubers are agricultural curiosities, while supermarket shelves are filled with the smooth, predictable varieties that are suited to large scale production and sale. The artist links the limited range of varieties in commercial cultivation with EU regulations on registration of varieties for seed and propagation, suggesting that the threat of ‘illegality’ is deterring farmers from cultivating valuable old varieties and leading to an impoverishment of agricultural heritage. A good story needs a villain but the EU doesn’t really fit the rôle in this case.
Regulations accumulated over thirty years provided for the registration of distinct and stable varieties, so that consumers could be sure what they were buying when choosing a variety of vegetable seed or seed potato with a particular name. Varieties are registered by the seed merchants who wish to market them, so those varieties in large scale cultivation were the first to be registered. Registration was a complicated and costly process so traditional varieties, traded on a small scale remained unregistered and effectively outside the law, though cultivating them was never illegal. Recent revisions to EU directives have been drafted to simplify the registration process for traditional varieties, to remove registration charges to small businesses and to help to conserve ‘agro-biodiversity’ and plant genetic resources.
Traditional varieties are under threat, from the standardisation demanded by big business, but that’s a different story and the outcome is (democratically) in the hands of the people. If you want potatoes with a story to tell, colourful, varied and full of flavour, buy them from a greengrocer or market trader who supports small farmers and be prepared for knobbly tubers with the occasional slug hole.