Farmers: Trial sanction ‘short-sighted’

Organic farmers and anti-GM groups have described the EPA’s decision to sanction the growing of genetically modified potatoes in Ireland as irresponsible and short-sighted.

Opponents to Teagasc’s planned project at Oak Park in Carlow insist there is no “market for GM foods amongst European consumers, who have consistently said they won’t buy such food”.

The Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association’s general manager, Gillian Westbrook, said: “Ireland produces enough food to feed 36 million people, with most of its food exports going to the EU.

“The European consumer is strongly against GM crops. This finding is based on independent Euro barometer research. Fundamentally, we feel this goes against Ireland’s green credentials, which we are actively trying to promote in Europe.”

The GM Free Ireland Network said that the EPA decision “fails to take into account the economic impact on the country of allowing such crops to be released into Ireland”.

“Irish food has always been marketed as clean and green and GM free. If the trial goes ahead, that reputation will be damaged forever,” said the network’s founder, Michael O’Callaghan. “We tend to forget we have a cleaner top soil in this country than most of the rest of Europe.

“We strongly disagree with the EPA’s contention there is little risk to non-GM producers of contamination from these crops. Across Europe, 0.002% of arable land is given over to GM crops. Most of that is in the Catalonia and Aragon areas of Spain and they have experienced widespread contamination, according to local producer groups, and can no longer grow ordinary maize and maize seed.”

He also warned GM contamination of ordinary crops occurred in Spain despite there being a three metre exclusion zone between the GM and non-GM crops.

Human rights NGO Action from Ireland said the move was “ill-advised”, with the potential to do “serious reputational damage to Ireland’s flourishing organic industry”.

“The argument that Ireland needs a blight-resistant GM potato is ridiculous because there are already blight-resistant potatoes in Ireland. They are not genetically modified and therefore do not pose any risk of contamination to other crops,” Jack Murray said.

Q&A

Q. What are genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

A. GMOs refer to plants and animals (also bacteria, viruses, fungi, plant and animal cells) with an altered genetic make-up. GMOs are generally altered or manipulated by a non-natural means in order to incorporate genes from another organism. Usually genetic engineering (GE) is done to achieve a trait not normally held by an organism, such as longer shelf life, disease resistance or different colours or flavours. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, and genes to also be transferred between non-related species.

Q. Is this the first time that the EPA has given permission for an open field GMO trial in Ireland?

A. No. In the late-1990s Teagasc oversaw trials of a modified sugar beet plant developed by Monsanto. The sugar beet trials ended when a number of the sites were destroyed by a group calling itself the Gaelic Earth Liberation Front. Then in 2006, the EPA also gave permission to the chemical company, BASF to develop GMO potato crops in Co Meath but the project was later cancelled following opposition from TDs from all parties, two motions passed unanimously by Meath County Council, the threat of further legal action on planning and constitutional grounds and resistance from more than 100 farm and food industry groups.

Q. So what’s the advantage of GMOs to food production?

A. Generally they allow crops to be grown cheaper. Some of the current GM crops for example produce their own pesticides and/or are resistant to toxic weedkillers. This means the farmer needs to spend less money on pesticides and can use weedkillers on their land without damaging their main crop.

Q. This latest Irish GM trial is to curb late potato blight. Is this a major problem for Irish farmers?

A. Late blight is a common disease in potatoes grown in Ireland. Many plant pathologists consider it to be the most dangerous potato plant disease in the world because of how rapidly it spreads when conditions are warm and moist.

According to Teagasc, more aggressive potato blight strains have emerged in recent years, in particular the sexual form of the fungus which can produce oospores (a type of spore), which can infect potatoes early in the growing process. As a result, potato growers have been being forced to substantially increase the amount of chemicals they use to control the disease.

Q. In what way has this GM potato been modified?

A. The GM potato line has been altered with an R or resistance gene using GMO technology. The R gene will give the GM potato line resistance to the late blight fungus (Phytophthora infestans). The R gene was taken from a wild potato species (Solanum venturii) that originated in South America and was reinserted into the genome of a potato variety (Solanum tuberosum cultivar Desiree) commonly grown in the EU.

Q. OK. But messing around with plant and animal genes? Surely there are repercussions for the environment?

A. The anti-GM lobby argue that GM crops argue that the long-term health and environmental impacts are scientifically impossible to predict. They also say crops contaminate wild and related species as their seeds and pollen naturally drift through the air into non-GM crops growing nearby, they increase the use of weedkillers, reduce biodiversity, and create GM superweeds.

Q. Why is a field trial important?

A. Research has been taking place in laboratories around Ireland but scientists say it is vital they can observe the GMO in an open environment and its interactions with other organisms.

Q. Are field trials with GM potatoes taking place elsewhere in the EU?

A. The field trial will be performed as part of an EU publicly funded 7th Framework research programme called AMIGA (Assessing and Monitoring the Impacts of GM plants on Agro-ecosystems). The AMIGA consortium consists of 22 partners representing 15 EU member states. The same GM potato line, as will be used during the Teagasc field trial, was released in three locations in the Netherlands last year. According to Teagasc, no unforeseen effects as compared to conventional potato varieties were observed.

Q. But I thought we did not allow GM in Europe?

A. In the EU, food and animal feed produced from or containing approved GMOs requires a GM label. But meat, poultry and dairy produced from livestock fed on GM animal feed (which is widely used by Irish farmers) can be sold without a label. According to anti-GM groups, GM crops are banned or restricted in most EU countries and 70% of EU consumers and most EU retailers refuse to buy or sell GM-labelled food. The only GMO approved for cultivation in the EU (Monsanto’s MON810 maize) is being grown in Spain. Anti-GM groups say it is rapidly contaminating conventional and organic farms.

Q. What happens if the Teagasc trials recommend the use of this GM potato?

A. According to Teagasc, it is not in the business of developing GM crops for commercialisation but if the experimental release is positive, biotech companies may decide to make it available to farmers for cultivation purposes. But a GMO can only be put on the market if gets approval at EU level.

— Claire O’Sullivan


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