Controversial Quest to Protect Potatoes in Ireland from Blight

Posted on: August 3rd, 2012 by Annette Welsford No Comments

Potatoes come in all shapes, colors and sizes. But what will GM potatoes look like?

Once the basic diet of the Irish, potatoes are once again the centre of attention in Ireland, with a decision by the country’s environmental protection agency to approve a trial of genetically modified potato crops.

According to scientists, the motivation is to improve resistance of potatoes to blight. Various strains of this fungal disease have continued to plague potato crops since it caused the nationwide Irish famine that ultimately caused the death of more than a million people in the mid-1800s.

The approved trial will continue for four years, subject to certain report requirements and other conditions.

Attempts to Control Potato Blight

In 1883, Alexandre Millardet, a French botanist, developed a fungicide that was effective against blight. But in recent years, new and aggressive strains of the disease have presented increasingly difficult challenges. In Ireland alone, the costs of chemicals and spraying are said to top 15-million euros every year.

Genetically Modified Potatoes

It is a well-known fact that authorities in the European Union (EU) have been carrying out trials with GM potatoes in Belgian, the Netherlands and various parts of the United Kingdom since 2010.

Applying for a licence to do their own trials, Teagasc (which provides research, advice and training to the food an agricultural industry in Ireland) argued that their local environment is different to that in other parts of the EU. Further, they maintained that the method of modification to be used (“cisgenic technology”) was more like “conventional breeding” than the highly controversial and much criticised “transgenic modification” that mixes genes from different species.

The plan is to take a resistant gene from the wild South American potato, Solanum venturii, and breed it with Irish potatoes that are susceptible to blight.

Representatives from Teagasc insist that this is not part of a bigger plan to commercialise GM potatoes in Ireland. All they want to do, they say, it to look at “impacts on the environment and on the pathogen itself”.

Irish Opposition to the GM Plan

In spite of the approval, the Dublin-based Organic Trust is campaigning furiously against these GM potato plans, declaring to the media that it will negatively impact on Ireland’s well-entrenched reputation as “a green, clean food-producing island”.

There have been no GM trials in Ireland since 1996 when there were attempts to grow genetically modified sugar beet. They argue that to dabble in any form of GM will be a huge step backwards.

Spokesman for the Trust, Gavin Lynch, says that “in reality cisgenic is a nonsense”. He maintains that it is simply Teagasc’s way of making the whole issue “palatable” to people in general. He doesn’t buy the idea that it is safe because they will be using a “related” plant, and continues to argue that “the real danger is the process”.

Perhaps we should all be asking how we will be able to ascertain which potatoes are genetically modified if and when they make their way onto supermarket shelves throughout the world.

Whatever happens, this is just another really good reason for you to grow your own potatoes at home!

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