Saturday, March 24, 2012

GM Potato set to be planted in Ireland

A major new EU study is set to examine the effects of growing GM, 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 1990's.

In a statement issued at the end of February, Teagasc (the Irish agricultural development agency) announced that they are to seek a license 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 fungal-like organism Phytophthora infestans, decimated the Irish potato crop  in the 1840s leading to the Great Famine. Since then, it has remained a problem for Irish farmers, requiring chemical fungicides to be used to maintain Irish potato yields. GM potatoes have the potential to protect the potato plant from Late Blight attack without the necessity for large amounts of fungicide to be applied.

The potato variety Desiree was transformed withe the Rpi-vnt1.1 gene which confers broad spectrum resistance to Phytophthora infestans. That gene, along with its own promoter and terminator regions were taken from the wild potato species Solanum venturii and inserted into the cultivated potato using Agrobacterium tumefaciens-mediated transformation.

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, Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA), called the experiments planned for Teagasc's Oakpark headquarters 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."

File Photo: Minister Ruairi Quinn at an Anti-GM event last year
Grace Maher, Development Officer with IOFGA said that considering growing GM in Ireland is "economic suicide" and that the move would put at risk an export market worth 9.1 billion: "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, it seems the lobby group for the organic industry, is jumping the gun a bit here.

The funding comes directly from the EU's FP7 research programme - a €50 billion fund specifically designated for research and technological development. There is no question of further money coming from Irish taxpayers.

No matter where the money comes from, there is also a wider issue. Teagasc is Ireland's agriculture and food development agency. It is that organisation's role 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 is was set up to do, is ridiculous. Any arguments for or against GM crops need to be based on firm scientific evidence and that does not simple fall out of the sky.

The field tests to be carried out at Oakpark will look at the impact of GM plants on the surrounding ecosystem and John Spink, Head of Crops Research at Teagasc was keen to point out that the research is "not about testing the commercial viability of GM potatoes".

"The GM study is about gauging the environmental impact of growing GM potatoes in Ireland and monitoring how the pathogen, which causes blight, and the ecosystem reacts to GM varieties in the field over several seasons.”

Mindful of the controversy surrounding trials of GM sugar beet in Ireland in the late 1990s by Monsanto, these new experiments will use a potato developed at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and there will be no biotech or GM company involved. The sugar beet trials ended with a number of the sites being destroyed by a group styling itself the Gaelic Earth Liberation Front.

According to documents submitted to the EPA as part of the licence application, the field experiments are designed to measure the impact of GM potato cultivation on bacterial, fungal, nematode and earthworm diversity in the soil compared to a conventional system; to identify positive or negative impacts of GM potato on integrated pest management systems; and to use the project as a tool for education in order to engage and discuss the issues surrounding GM with stakeholders and the public.

As Teagasc researcher Dr. Ewen Mullins put it: “It is not enough to simply look at the benefits without also considering the potential costs. We need to investigate whether there are long term impacts associated with this specific GM crop and critically we need to gauge how the late blight disease itself responds. This is not just a question being asked in Ireland. The same issues are arising across Europe.”

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Dr. Mullins remarked: "People are asking about the merits of GM potatoes.At Teagasc, we have a remit to inform people. We haven’t had GM field trials here since the late 1990s. The goal is to look at all of the environmental impacts, and to fill the vacuum that exists currently in terms of impartial knowledge."

An edited version of this article appears on the Guardian's Notes and Theories blog. You can read it here.


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