Diversifying Food Choices

From 1845-1852, Ireland faced a dire situation because of the failure of its primary food staple: the potato. Potatoes grown in Ireland were very susceptible to a form of blight. Rather than switch to a new crop less resistant to blight, a new potato was needed. We don’t often think of vegetables as innovations, but the innovative Russet Burbank potato saved the economy of Ireland. Luther Burbank was the creator of this new potato.

Luther grew up on a farm as the 13th of 15 children. When his father died when he was 18, Luther used his inheritance to buy a small plot of land. While Luther’s education stopped in high school, he was fascinated by plants and the breeding of new plants through grafting, hybrid cultures, and cross-breeding. This was before the technique of genetic modifications of plants became available.

On his small plot of land, Burbank developed a blight-resistant potato which started him on a path to becoming a plant innovator. Burbank sold the rights to his potato and moved to California and bought another plot of land. He used this land to develop other new species of vegetables, fruits, flowers, etc.

Luther suffered financially until Clarence Stark became his sponsor. Stark owned a very profitable nursery and orchard company. The sponsorship of Stark gave Luther the freedom to continue his work on innovative plants. But one major problem remained: the lack of protection for his ideas. Luther worked with Stark and Thomas Edison to get patent protection added to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Luther was not a success with his own personal finances, but he had the help of others to manage his business affairs. His work was also disparaged by academics because of his lack of a higher-level education. But Luther had another sponsor who gave him legitimacy. Andrew Carnegie was a big believer in Luther and helped support him through the Carnegie Institution.

Over a 55-year career, Luther developed over 800 new plants. The french fries we get at a fast food restaurant today are from one of Luther’s potatoes. Many of the fruit varieties available to us came from Luther’s innovations. The flowers we buy at a nursery are often from Luther’s work.

Hidden heroes often lack the credentials of others in their interest areas. Acceptance of their ideas must face two hurdles: their professional acceptance, as well as the fear of the disruptions they may cause.

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“Less than fifteen percent of the people do any original thinking on any original subject. The greatest torture in the world for most people is to think.”- Luther Burbank

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