Why Ireland Needs to Test GM Potatoes

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A major new European Union study is set to examine the effects of growing genetically modified, blight-resistant potato plants on biodiversity and the environment in agricultural ecosystems. It will also see the first GM crops being grown in Ireland since the late 1990s.

In a statement issued last month, Teagasc (the Irish agricultural development agency) announced it is seeking a licence to carry out field trials of GM potatoes as part of the AMIGA consortium – a group including representatives of research bodies from 15 EU countries.

Late blight, caused by the fungus-like organism Phytophthora infestans, decimated the Irish potato crop in the 1840s, leading to the Great Famine. Since then, the disease has remained a problem for Irish farmers, who have had to use chemical fungicides to maintain potato yields. Genetic modification has the potential to protect the potato plant from late blight attack without the need for large amounts of fungicide.

The potato variety Desiree has been transformed with the Rpi-vnt1.1 gene, which confers resistance to P. infestans. The gene was taken from the wild potato species Solanum venturii and inserted into the cultivated potato.

While there are indications that public concern over GM crops has declined in the UK, the news that field experiments will be carried out in Ireland for the first time since the late 1990s has drawn some criticism here. In a statement released last week, the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA) – which certifies organic produce in Ireland – claimed the experiments would be a waste of taxpayers money. “In light of the fact that Teagasc has lodged an application with the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] for a licence to grow GM potatoes at its headquarters in Oakpark, IOFGA are demanding that Teagasc be held accountable for their decision to waste taxpayers money on this project.”

Grace Maher, IOFGA’s development officer, said growing GM in Ireland would be “economic suicide” and that the move would put at risk an export market worth €9.1bn (£7.6bn): “Ireland has an excellent reputation internationally as a clean green island that is also a GM-free region, and we need to build on this reputation not destroy it.”

The statement ends by accusing Teagasc of pedalling an “unwanted technology”: “In this austere economic climate we need to end wasteful public spending immediately and enforce accountability on those who continue to do so.”

Unfortunately the IOFGA seems to have jumped the gun. Funding for the research will come directly from the EU’s FP7 research programme– a €50bn fund earmarked for research and technological development. There is no question of further money coming from Irish taxpayers.

No matter where the money comes from, however, there is a wider issue at stake here. Teagasc is Ireland’s agriculture and food development agency. Its role is to carry out research leading to a better understanding of agriculture and new agronomic techniques. To accuse such a body of “wasting” money by doing the very thing it was set up to do is ridiculous.

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