Behind the News: Dr Ewen Mullins, GM crop researcher

The Teagasc scientist in charge of an Irish potato trial talks about the effect of an EU decision to let member states ban EU-approved genetically modified crops

Europe-wide study: researchers in 15 countries are studying GM potatoes’ potential resistance to blight. Photograph: Julian Stratenschulte/AFP/Getty

Europe-wide study: researchers in 15 countries are studying GM potatoes’ potential resistance to blight. Photograph: Julian Stratenschulte/AFP/Getty

 

The announcement this week of new European Union rules on genetically modified crops is just another step in a very politicised debate, according to Dr Ewen Mullins of Teagasc. “What this new policy means is that once the European Commission decides what’s safe for growing and eating, each EU country will still have the right to continue to ban cultivation of GM crops,” he says.

Currently, member states can ban or restrict the use of a genetically modified organism only if they have new evidence that it could pose a risk to human health or to the environment. The new legislation had been deadlocked for four years because of disagreement between member states.

The new rules will, Mullins believes, see the development of a two-tier system, in which some EU countries will start to grow these crops and others won’t. “The EU is currently lagging behind the rest of the world on GM foods. We import about one million tonnes for GM animal feed every year, and the biomedical and pharmaceutical industry is reliant on GM technologies, so only time will tell what happens to GM crop cultivation here.”

Mullins is the senior research officer in charge of the only trial of genetically modified crops in Ireland. This is an EU research project, across 15 countries, studying GM potatoes’ potential resistance to blight.

“We are growing three varieties of potatoes, one control and two which have been genetically modified through the additional of wild genes from other potato varieties. We have been collecting data for the last two years, and the trial will continue until September 2015,” he says.

The potatoes are grown on half a hectare of land at the Teagasc National Centre for Arable Crop Research, in Oak Park, Carlow. “We have had a lot of interest in the project. Thousands of people have come here from farming, industry and interest groups,” Mullins says. “Our work is to sample the blight responses of each potato variety and study the soil microbes in the area planted. The aim of the project is to evaluate the agrienvironmental impact.”

Mullins stresses that the trial, whose results are expected in mid 2016, has no links with the commercial biotechnology industry.

Farmers in Ireland spend up to 10 per cent of their potato-production costs on fungicides, spraying crops almost weekly when weather conditions make blight more likely. “If blight gets into a field it will destroy the crop in a week. There are different strains every year, some of which become fungicide-resistant,” Mullins says. “It’s a huge problem for farmers, so there is a lot of interest in the project.”

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