Organics expert backs anti-blight trial

The co-ordinator of Ireland’s first master’s degree in organic horticulture has welcomed trials of genetically-modified potatoes in a bid to beat late blight.

University College Cork plant scientist Eoin Lettice said his support of GM trials of potatoes in Co Carlow is based on their safe implementation as part of a multi-method approach to developing blight-resistant potatoes.

“My personal view is you’ve got to use all tools available to you, including organic production techniques, conventional breeding programmes and even trials of GM potatoes if they are warranted and environmentally safe,” said Mr Lettice.

He is co-coordinator of the new MSc course run by the School of BEES (Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences) at Liss Ard Estate in Skibbereen.

The loss of €15m worth of conventional potato stocks necessitates the application of between 15 and 20 doses of fungicide to potato crops annually in Ireland, which amounts to an “arms race” in a bid to control blight, Mr Lettice said. He was speaking at the sold out Humble Spud debate as part of the Taste of West Cork food festival in Skibbereen.

“There are inescapable health, environmental, economic concerns about applying those fungicides, although applied safely it isn’t an issue, but certainly at EU level, there’s a push toward reducing fungicide use, there’s a move toward biological control and integrated pest management systems — which I think is a good thing,” he said.

Consumers’ loyalty to traditional varieties such as the rooster and Kerr’s pink are part of the problem, because naturally blight-resistant varieties are only grown in small amounts by conventional growers in response to demand.

“There are blight-resistant varieties available, sarpo mira, sarpo axona and so on. Unfortunately, consumers and commercial growers are hard to convince,” he said.

“To this day, 170 years on from the famine, we struggle to produce a potato variety which is fully resistant to late blight and which consumers actually want to eat.”

Madeline McKeever, of Brown Envelope Seeds, said she was concerned by Teagasc’s GM trial because of the gene insertion process (which is random and could disrupt other genes), the lack of planned tests for toxicity, and the “lack of democracy” attached to the trial: “Teagasc have no plans to test for toxicity and that concerns me. Also, it’s not very democratic. Why are they spending all this money on something people don’t want?”

A coffin symbolising the death of Ireland’s good food sector will be carried to the Department of Agriculture today as part of an anti-GM protest departing St Stephen’s Green at noon.

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