Farm Ireland
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Sunday 20 January 2019

Could GM potatoes prove resistant to blight?

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Potatoes in Ireland are typically sprayed with fungicide 10 to 12 times per year, due to the constant threat of late blight.

Late blight disease is controlled well, but this is expensive and there is an environmental impact.

"We've never met a farmer that likes to spray. It's a necessary part of the business. If there is an alternative, they are interested," said Dr Ewen Mullins, crop scientist at Teagasc.

Teagasc carried out a study of a GM potato engineered to be resistant to late blight.

This involved cutting a gene from a wild potato species and inserting it into a conventional potato.

"Many wild potatoes have strong resistance to late blight, but also many have traits we don't want," said Dr Mullins.

"Scientists in the Netherlands developed the GM potato line and through the EU funded AMIGA project we were able to examine the agri-environmental impact of this novel potato variety."

The GM potato reduced the environmental impact of potato production by up to 95pc.

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Late blight strains have the potential to overcome the genetic resistance, but more modern gene editing techniques can rapidly generate new crop varieties.

"It is much faster than traditional breeding. Breeding a new potato variety can take 12 to 13 years. With this approach, this can be reduced to 2-3 years," said Dr Mullins.

A recent decision by the European Court of Justice has, however, taken the option of gene-edited crops off the table for European seed companies, and likely European farmers too.

Lab research using gene editing will continue in Europe, but trialling new gene edited crops in the field is likely to hit the buffers.

"We had editing projects in play. Our goal at Teagasc is to deliver solutions through practice. The customer is the man or woman driving the tractor," said Dr Mullins, adding that breeding programmes will continue to use gene editing to improve genetic understanding of crop varieties.

"There was overwhelming evidence that gene editing was more precise and faster. So it was a surprising decision" he said.

"But is it a negative? It doesn't much matter [at Teagasc], because the law is the law and we have to get on with it."

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