Teagasc are applying to the EPA for a licence to undertake a series of field studies using GM potatoes resistant to potato late blight disease to determine the potential impact this technology could have on our ecosystems.
As part of the 22 partner ‘AMIGA’ consortium that represents 15 EU countries and is funded through the EU’s Framework 7 research programme, Teagasc propose to carry out the research over the next 4 years. Pending license approval, the work will take place at the Teagasc Crops Research Centre in Oak Park, Carlow.
Research confirms that GM late blight resistant potatoes have the potential to significantly reduce the fungicide load on the environment and hence provide an economic advantage to farmers. Teagasc researcher Dr. Ewen Mullins said: “It is not enough to simply look at the benefits without also considering the potential costs. We need to investigate whether there are long term impacts associated with this specific GM crop and critically we need to gauge how the late blight disease itself responds. This is not just a question being asked in Ireland. The same issues are arising across Europe.”
After decimating the Irish potato crop in the 1840s and sparking the Great Famine, the organism (Phytophthora infestans) which causes late blight disease remains a very real threat to Irish potato growers. As new, more aggressive strains of the pathogen have arrived in Ireland over the last 4 years, farmers have had to adapt by increasing the amount of fungicides applied but this is not sustainable; especially in light of new EU laws designed to reduce the amount of chemicals that are applied on our crops.
While the agronomic and economic benefits of using GM to deliver novel control strategies for late blight disease are clear, the intractable debate that has taken place between the proponents and opponents of GM, continues to highlight the public’s wish for further, impartial information on the potential impact of GM crops in Ireland.
In response Teagasc will also conduct an outreach programme with stakeholders and the public through focus groups and open days, to facilitate an inclusive and impartial discussion on the issues that most concern people.
Head of crops research in Teagasc John Spink said: “The field study will be isolated from the on-going conventional potato breeding programme that has been successfully running at Oak Park for over 40 years and with no linkage to the biotech industry on this matter, Teagasc are clear that their work is not about testing the commercial viability of GM potatoes. The GM study is about gauging the environmental impact of growing GM potatoes in Ireland and monitoring how the pathogen, which causes blight, and the ecosystem reacts to GM varieties in the field over several seasons.”