Controversial GM potato trial to yield results in weeks


A CONTROVERSIAL study into the environmental impact of genetically modified (GM) potatoes in Oak Park, Co Carlow, is expected to start showing results within weeks.

Almost two weeks ago, the agricultural development body Teagasc planted 24 GM potato plants that have improved resistance to late potato blight alongside conventional potato plants.

Dr Ewen Mullins, Teagasc’s senior research officer at Oak Park, said blight had already started to show in a drill of non-GM potatoes, specifically planted because they were vulnerable to blight. He is watching to see if this spreads to the drills containing the GM and non-GM plants. “If that blight takes hold, we’ll have an idea of what’s happening with our GM line within a week.” The study is looking at the impact of the GM potatoes on the soil, particularly on its bacterial, fungal and earthworm diversity.

The trial was widely criticised by environmental groups and organic producers when it got the go-ahead from the Environmental Protection Agency in July.

The site contains six short drills of potatoes, on a plot of about 10m2. While the area is surrounded by a fence, Dr Mullins said Teagasc had opted not to introduce high security to protect the trial. Apart from the cost, “it also instils an unnecessary fear element about the study”, he said.

Three bulls in the field beside the trial might be enough to discourage people from vandalising the crop, but “if it happens, it happens”, he said. “We have contingency measures in place to replace the crops straight away. If you destroy research, you don’t get answers. If you destroy the crop, you are actually preventing the public from getting answers to questions they’ve been asking us for nearly 10 years now.”

Last week, Teagasc was criticised for planting the potatoes before a three-month judicial review period had elapsed. Dr Mullins said he realised the planting of the potatoes had caused upset for some people but the licence conditions had been strictly adhered to. “If we breach the licence the work stops. There’s no debate about that.”

He said he understood the concerns of organic farmers who feared the GM potato crop could contaminate their own crops. He said there was no risk because pollen from potato plants travelled an average of 11m from the crop and the GM field study was in an isolated area. And if the pollen did travel to a neighbouring potato field it would not contaminate the potato because the tuber was growing underground.

Dr Mullins said he hoped the study would ensure that people were better informed about potato production. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people that said to me: ‘We still have blight in Ireland? I thought that was just during the Famine’.”

Blight disease costs about €15 million in losses a year and potatoes are sprayed with chemicals at least 15 times a year to prevent it. This was “phenomenal expense” from the farmers’ point of view but was also unsustainable.

“Something needs to be done,” he said.

He said Teagasc was neither for nor against GM. But he rejected the argument that the study would cause Ireland to lose its GM-free status and undermine Ireland’s green image.

Blight alternative: GM ‘not only way’

TEAGASC’S STUDY of blight-resistant GM potatoes has led the Sustainable Potatoes United Development Study (Spuds) group to conduct its own trial involving naturally blight-resistant potatoes. The volunteer-run group has enlisted 300 farmers, urban gardeners and schools to grow potatoes known to have strong resistance to blight, and gather data on their experiences.

Spuds co-founder Kaethe Burt O’Dea said the project would examine what a naturally blight-resistant potato was like to grow, harvest and eat.

She said the media focused on GM potatoes that were blight-resistant, so people might not realise that blight-resistant potatoes already existed. “There’s a myriad of other potential solutions to this blight problem and GM isn’t the only one there.”

The research will be analysed by students in the Students Learning with Communities Programme at DIT and results will be published early next year.

“The current thinking is that naturally blight-resistant potatoes are not commercially viable. Through this project we would like to examine whether this is really the case.”

Harvesting of the potatoes would begin later this month and reports were promising, she said. ALISON HEALY