Food and Farming Correspondent A CONTROVERSIAL study into the environmental impact of genetically modified (GM) potatoes in Oak Park, Co Carlow, is expected to start showing results within weeks.

Almost two weeks ago, the agricultural development body Teagasc planted 24 GM potato plants that have improved resistance to late potato blight alongside conventional potato plants.

Dr Ewen Mullins, Teagasc’s senior research officer at Oak Park, said blight had already started to show i n a drill of non–GM potatoes, specifically planted because they were vulnerable to blight. He is watching to see if this spreads to the drills containing the GM and non– GM plants. “If that blight takes hold, we’ll have an idea of what’s happening with our GM line within a week.” The study is looking at the impact of the GM potatoes on the soil, particularly on its bacterial, fungal and earthworm diversity.


The trial was widely criticised by environmental groups and organic producers when it got the go–ahead from the Environmental Protection Agency in July.

The site contains six short drills of potatoes, on a plot of about 10m2. While the area i s surrounded by a fence, Dr Mullins said Teagasc had opted not to introduce high security to protect the trial. Apart from the cost, “it also instils an unnecessary fear element about the study”, he said.

Three bulls in the field beside the trial might be enough to discourage people from vandalising the crop, but “if it happens, it happens”, he said. “We have contingency measures in place to replace the crops straight away. If you destroy research, you don’t get answers. If you destroy the crop, you are actually preventing the public from getting answers to questions they’ve been asking us for nearly 10 years now.”

Last week, Teagasc was criticised for planting the potatoes before a three–month judicial review period had elapsed. Dr Mullins said he realised the planting of the potatoes had caused upset for some people but the licence conditions had been strictly adhered to. “If we breach the licence the work stops. There’s no debate about that.”

He said he understood the concerns of organic farmers who feared the GM potato crop could contaminate their own crops. He said there was no risk because pollen from potato plants travelled an average of 11m from the crop and the GM field study was in an isolated area. And if the pollen did travel to a neighbouring potato field it would not contaminate the potato because the tuber was growing underground.

Dr Mullins said he hoped the study would ensure that people were better informed about potato production. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people that said to me: ‘ We still have blight in Ireland? I thought that was just during the Famine’.”

Blight disease costs about ¤15 million in losses a year and potatoes are sprayed with chemicals at least 15 times a year to prevent it. This was “phenomenal expense” from the farmers’ point of view but was also unsustainable.

“Something needs to be done,” he said.

He said Teagasc was neither for nor against GM. But he rejected the argument that the study would cause Ireland to lose its GM–free status and undermine Ireland’s green image.

 

  • Sep 2012
  • The Irish Times
  • ALISON HEALY
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