Ban on GM crops is a blight on Irish agriculture

Opinion: Fears about GMO are not borne out by the science; a rethink is in order

GM potatoes tolerant to the late blight fungus might  be useful for Irish agriculture. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

GM potatoes tolerant to the late blight fungus might be useful for Irish agriculture. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

 

In July 2018, the Government announced the prohibition/restriction of the commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops (GMO) in Ireland. Then minister for Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten said, “it was a very significant development and that it was critically important that Ireland takes whatever steps are necessary to maintain our GMO cultivation-free status, which is a key element of our international reputation as a green, sustainable food producer”.

This decision will not allow Irish farmers or consumers to obtain the benefits of innovative agricultural tools, including GM technology in order to combat the challenges of climate change and food insecurity. It is ironic and somewhat contradictory that Irish farmers rely heavily on imported GM crops for animal feeding purpose, but, due to this decision, Irish tillage farmers will not be allowed to cultivate GM crops that could be critical to the future of Irish agriculture and to their own farms.

For centuries, farmers have used plant-breeding technology to gradually improve their crops. Today, modern GMO technology allows plant breeders to improve crops in a more precise and targeted way. It also allows them to speed up the breeding process and produce plant varieties with resistance to plant pests, and fungal diseases, tolerance to drought conditions and enhanced nutritional qualities. GM technology has revolutionised plant production worldwide. In 2017, farmers planted 190 million hectares of GM crops globally. This equates to a surface larger than 22 times the land mass of Ireland.

However, EU member States have not embraced this technology – with the exception of Spain, where farmers have been cultivating about 100,000 hectares of Bt GM maize (tolerant to a pest called the European corn borer) per annum for the past 20 years.

Limitations

Conventional plant breeding has had great success but it also has limitations. In the case of potato, it can take up to 15 years to breed a new potato variety. By using GM technology, this can be reduced to three to five years. The application of GMO technology speeds up the pace of crop breeding.

The “clean, green food” image of Ireland and use of GM crops are not necessary contradictory. This concept might be considerably overplayed by the Government decision to ban the cultivation of GM crops, considering Ireland’s real-world experience with food safety issues such as BSE, the pig meat dioxin crisis and the horse meat scandal.

The fact is, Irish consumers are not concerned about the safety of GM, according to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI). It receives very few complaints pertaining to GMO compared to real food risks: food poisoning outbreaks such as Campylobacter bacteria, the most common cause of bacterial gastroenteritis in Ireland. More than 9,500 queries were received in 2017 and of those just 15 related to GM foods labelling. This is not surprising as the risks from GMO crops to human health and the environment are vanishingly low.

Just think about the past summer where we had a deficit of rainfall and very little grass growth for nearly four months

In 2010, a review of a decade of research on GMOs which looked at their safety for human and animal health, and for the environment, was published. This formed part of 25 years of GMO research funded by the EU taxpayers and costing €300 million. The main conclusion to be drawn was that GMO is not per se riskier than conventional plant breeding technologies. This proves the concept of “a history of safe use” with GMO over the past 25 years.

In my opinion, there are a number of GM crops that might be pertinent for Irish agriculture. The first is GM maize and GM ryegrass that are tolerant to drought. Just think about the past summer where we had a deficit of rainfall and very little grass growth for nearly four months, in particular, in the south and eastern parts of the country. It is likely that we will see more of these types of summers with a changing climate. Therefore, drought-tolerant crops might be considered useful for Irish agriculture in adapting to climate change.

Dramatic shift

GM potatoes tolerant to the late blight fungus might also be useful for Irish agriculture. In a 2012 publication, scientists documented a dramatic shift in the population of the potato late blight pathogen (Phytophthora infestans) in northwest Europe in which an invasive and aggressive strain has emerged and rapidly displaced other genotypes. This could be the pathogen adapting to climate change. Scientists at Teagasc’s Oak Park crops research centre in Carlow have also recorded the emergence of highly aggressive strains of the blight disease that have also been exhibiting levels of fungicide resistance over the past 10 years.

The GM potato field trials results which were carried out over a number of growing seasons by Dr Ewen Mullins at Teagasc were published in 2018. The results show it is possible to reduce the need for fungicide inputs by 80 to 90 per cent by using a single source of genetic resistance in the GM variety.

In essence, one gene was taken from a wild potato called Solanum venturii and it was transferred (using GM technology) into a commercial variety called Désirée that gave the plant late blight resistance. Using GM technology, breeders are accelerating the plant breeding process (from 15 to 3 to 5 years), in effect taking a gene from a potato and transferring it to another potato in a process called Cisgenesis.

Under Irish climatic conditions, spraying is a necessity at present but, if plant protection products are removed (which is happening under an EU directive on the sustainable use of pesticides), therefore there has to be a viable alternative to the use of chemical sprays. Based on Dr Mullins’s research, GM-bred potato varieties may provide that solution for Irish farmers. This again is another example of sustainable agricultural production where farmers are less reliant on fungicides.

The challenges facing Irish farmers from climate change pressures and the urgent need to protect biodiversity are immense

It can be argued that GM technology is more sustainable than use of the Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate and slaked lime) which was traditionally used to combat late blight fungus on potatoes and is still available for use by Irish potato farmers. It should be noted that copper is a heavy metal and is known to be toxic to humans (when consumed in large amounts). Due to this potential toxicity to humans it is somewhat surprising and astonishing that this “organic” product it is still approved for use as a fungicide in Ireland.

‘Depletion’

In a September 2018 report on “challenges facing agriculture and the plant science industry in the EU”, the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) said: “The continued depletion of the toolbox available to farmers to protect their crops is having, and will continue to have, significant consequences. The current approach to innovation makes it a real possibility that Europe will have to rely on importing even more of its food and feed in the future. Modern crop protection products are essential to assure a high standard of food production. There is a real danger Europe will have a further disadvantaged food production sector, and lose out to other regions in the world.”

The Government should take cognisance of this report. Otherwise Irish farmers could be at a competitive disadvantage in the future while the world’s major farm markets continue to gain access to new technologies in the production of food.

The challenges facing Irish farmers from climate change pressures and the urgent need to protect biodiversity are immense. They need access to cutting-edge innovations, such as GM technology. We must adhere to the EU’s strenuous regulations to protect public health and the environment for the placing of GM crop products on the market. However, implementation of these regulations at EU level needs to be risk-proportionate, predictable, science-based and non-discriminatory, and existing GM policy needs to be applied to allow innovation for the benefit of society and the environment.

The Government and policy makers involved in GMO policy in Ireland should reconsider their current stance.

Dr Thomas McLoughlin worked as a research scientist with leading biotechnology companies and universities in microbial ecology/genetics for 20 years. He later worked as a senior scientist for the EPA on implementation of GMO regulations