Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced it has given the thumbs up to Teagasc to plough ahead with a four-year field trial to test out genetically modified (GM) blight-resistant potatoes. The move has riled groups such as GM-Free Ireland and the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA).
The humble potato or ‘spud’ is as part of Ireland’s rich historical heritage as James Joyce’s Ulysses, the scientific exploits of the ‘father of modern chemistry’ Robert Boyle, or the eponymous Guinness brand, but the GM potato field trials move announced today by the EPA has not got a favourable reaction from entities such as the IOFGA.
The EPA announced today that it has given Teagasc the go-ahead to carry out field trials on a GM potato line with improved resistance to late potato blight at its Oak Park, Co Carlow, Crops Research Centre between now and 2016. Planting of the potatoes will apparently not exceed two hectares.
The EPA has stipulated eight conditions, however, including the detection method for the identification of the GM potatoes.
The EPA said today that in assessing the application it carried out ‘extensive’ consultations with all of the appropriate state agencies and Government departments, including the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the National Advisory Committee on Genetically Modified Organisms.
So why are the trials being carried out?
According to the EPA, more aggressive potato blight strains have emerged in recent years, in particular the sexual form of the fungus, which can produce oospores. It said these spore types can overwinter in the soil and potentially infect potatoes at an early stage of their growth cycle.
And scientists at Teagasc have claimed that annual losses due to this fungus in Ireland have been estimated at €15m per annum.
In order to manage this potato disease, Teagasc said it requires as many as 15 fungicide applications throughout the growing season in order to control crop losses caused by this fungus.
The IOFGA has expressed its disappointment at the GM potato trials.
It claims that international GM cultivation has shown that reliance on pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers has increased – not decreased – as promised. It also refers to the problems with cross contamination and cross-fertilisation between GM and non-GM crops.
Speaking today, the IOFGA’s Gillian Westbrook said Ireland has a GM-free image and it has been doing very well in terms of its agricultural production.
She said Ireland produces enough food to feed 36m people, with most of its food exports going to the EU.
"The European consumer is strongly against GM crops. This is based on independent Euro barometer research," said Westbrook.
She said the IOFGA is opposed to the GM potato trials set to be carried out in Ireland.
"We are opposed to this. Fundamentally, we feel this goes against Ireland’s green credentials which we are actively trying to promote in Europe," she added.
GM-Free Ireland, which is headed up by Michael O’Callaghan, had been asking people to sign a petition in recent times to keep Ireland free of GM potatoes.
According to Teagasc, the GM potato line proposed for release contains a single gene taken from a wild potato species using GM techniques.
Teagasc said it has been researching the impact of specific GM crops on the Irish agri-environment since 2002.
Potato image via Shutterstock