Trials planned on GM potatoes to enhance blight-resistance ability

Teagasc hopes to begin trials on GM potatoes with enhanced ability to resist late blight, which is a significant threat to the crop.

The national research body has applied to the Environmental Protection Agency for permission to participate with 22 partners in 15 EU member states as part of the four-year EU Framework 7 research programme. While Teagasc does test GM potatoes in a controlled lab environment, Ireland has not been involved in GM potato field trials since the late 1990s. In the past, this research has attracted a lot of resistance from anti-GM groups.

“Throughout Europe, the GM debate has always been highly politicised, ideological and very polarised,” said Ewen Mullins, a senior research officer with Teagasc in Carlow.

“The public are left confused about the current situation. At our discussion groups, we are constantly hearing that people don’t have enough information on the subject.

“We have been conducting a contained study into GM blight-resistant potatoes for years. This programme was established in 2002. It is funded by the EU. We haven’t received any funding from food companies because then the research would not be impartial.

“Under EU legislation, food producers must reduce their use of fungicides. With chemical inputs into crops in recent years, late blight has evolved rapidly. We are looking at GM lines to see how well they respond.”

Last October, BASF Plant Science applied for EU approval for Fortuna, a new genetically optimised table potato. The European Food Safety Authority is currently assessing the safety of Fortuna for humans, animals and the environment.

German-owned BASF first began research in 2003. The species has been tested in field trials for six years. Market introduction is expected for 2014/15.

If approved, the EU Framework 7 study will allow participant countries conduct non-commercial trials on the merits and demerits of the use of GM potatoes.

“People are asking about the merits of GM potatoes,” said Mr Mullins. “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.

“It is not enough to simply look at the benefits without also considering the potential costs. We need to investigate if 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 question is not just being asked in Ireland. The same issues are arising across Europe.”

After decimating the Irish potato crop in the 1840s and sparking the Great Famine, the organism (Phytophthora infestans) which causes late blight disease remains a very real threat to Irish potato growers. As new, more aggressive strains of the pathogen have arrived in Ireland over the last four years, farmers have had to adapt by increasing the amount of fungicides applied, but this is not sustainable; especially in light of EU laws designed to reduce chemical use.

Teagasc also plans to host focus groups and open days to facilitate an inclusive, impartial discussion on the issues that most concern people.

Head of crops research in Teagasc John Spink said: “The field study will be isolated from the on-going conventional potato breeding programme that has been successfully running at Oak Park for over 40 years and with no linkage to the biotech industry on this matter, Teagasc are clear that their work 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.”

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