Is this the start of a GM future for Irish farming?
Potatoes, sprayed with chemicals more than 20 times a season, are the perfect example of complexities surrounding this great debate
IN JULY 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency gave Teagasc permission to start a controversial, three-year, field-based research study of a genetically modified potato at its facility in Oak Park, Co Carlow.
The study is aimed at quantifying the impact of the GM potato on soil microbes, and the impact of Phytophthora infestans, the organism that causes blight, on the GM potato.
Teagasc emphasises that it is not producing GM potatoes for production or commercial purposes. Its role, it says, is to investigate the potential negative and/or positive impacts of GM technology and then inform stakeholders and the general public as to conclusions drawn.
GM opponents, however, spoke of a black day for Ireland, a day when we bowed to corporate pressure and welcomed in a 'Frankenstein' technology that polls show the public simply doesn't want.
They spoke about a fatal blow to Ireland's "clean, green" farming image. They raised concerns that GM technology would leave us increasingly dependent on transnational biotech corporations to supply us with patented seeds and chemicals.
They spoke of 'cross contamination' with non-GM crops, and how the creation of pest/herbicide-resistant GM crops would result in superbugs and superweeds that would evolve resistance to chemicals.
So, what's the truth? Is this trial the thin end of the wedge, and the beginning of a GM future for Ireland? Or is it a sensible scientific experiment in the face of the worsening threat posed by potato blight?
It can be difficult to work out which, in a debate that has become increasingly polarised. If you're to believe the hype, then there are only two real issues at play: the pro-GM lobby tells us we simply won't be able to feed the world's billions without producing high-yield genetically modified food. The anti-GM lobby tells us that Monsanto and other agri-business giants want to patent and own the food chain. Depending on your point of view, both of these claims might seem fanciful.
In my view, the issue has its most compelling, practical example when we talk about potatoes. Here's a crop that commercially, is often sprayed more than 20 times in a single season with chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides (chiefly to combat the dastardly potato blight, but also to kill weeds, keep pests at bay and prevent sprouting in storage).
After hearing the expert potato breeder David Shaw (of the Sarvari Trust) recount the list of chemicals used by commercial potato growers, and thinking about how those chemicals are most likely absorbed into the tubers, I found myself considering a potato-free diet for when my own crop of chemical-free spuds is finished later this year.
The GM lobby argues that GM potatoes could have their resistance to blight 'bred in' genetically, so that they wouldn't need spraying for blight, and that this is surely preferable to the chemical-laden alternative?
Hmm. If that's not enough to take in, then bear in mind that there is also a third option that is seldom spoken about – there already exist naturally blight-resistant potatoes that have their resistance bred in over time, rather than engineered genetically in a lab. The outstanding example is the Sarpo range, bred by the Sarpo family in Hungary to survive the ravages of blight and an unforgiving climate.
Seeing the potential of this potato, Dr David Shaw established the Sarvari (short for Sarpo and variety) Trust in Wales to continue breeding it and promoting its use.
These doughty survivors can be grown organically with no chemical interventions, but they are struggling to gain a toehold amongst commercial potato farmers (despite the obvious advantages, including the fact that they would need to buy far fewer chemicals), largely due to consumer tastes.
There's a further complication – blight is not an opponent that stands still. It's getting worse. It adapts over time, continuously thwarting the attempts of potato breeders to create ever-more resistant strains.
One-time resistant varieties can now be decimated by blight too. So the people at the Sarvari Trust have to battle constantly to stay a step ahead, and presumably there are no guarantees that blight won't one day win out. Without knowing anything about the science behind it, I assume GM blight-resistant spuds face the same threat.
Bottom line? This is an incredibly complex issue that deserves debate. At the GIY Gathering on September 14/15, we will explore this topic in an intriguing discussion with industry experts, hosted by Ella McSweeney.
Senior research officer of the Teagasc study Dr Ewen Mullins will be joined by Dr David Shaw, the head of the Sarvari Research Trust; chair of Slow Food Ireland Darina Allen; and founder of the 'citizen research' study SPUDS, Kaethe Burt O'Dea. More details at www.giyinternational.org.
Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm',
and founder of GIY