Perhaps inevitably there has been criticism over plans to test GM potatoes, resistant to late blight, in Ireland. The recent announcement of the plans came from the Irish agricultural development agency, Teagsac. The plans relate to the cultivation of a modified Desiree potato, transformed with the Rpi-vnt1.1 gene, which confers resistance to P. infestans/late blight. The gene was taken from the wild potato species Solanum venturii and inserted into the cultivated potato.
For a start there have been concerns that the cultivation would be “a waste of taxpayer’s money.” However, funding for the research is coming directly from the EU’s FP7 research programme – a €50bn fund earmarked for research and technological development. No further money will be taken from the Irish public purse.
It has been argued that without the research there can be no opposition based on scientific evidence, so even those opposed to GM foods should welcome the research being carried out.
The field tests that will be carried out will look at the impact of GM plants on the surrounding ecosystem. John Spink, head of crops research at Teagasc, was keen to point out that the research 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 react to GM varieties in the field over several seasons.”
According to documents submitted as part of the licence application, the field experiments are designed to measure the impact of GM potato cultivation on bacterial, fungal, nematode and earthworm diversity in the soil, compared with a conventional system; to identify positive or negative impacts of GM potato on integrated pest management systems; and to use the project as a tool for education in order to engage and discuss the issues surrounding GM with stakeholders and the public.
As Teagasc researcher Dr Ewen Mullins put it: “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.”
Dr Mullins said: “People are asking about the merits of GM potatoes. At Teagasc, we have a remit to inform people. We haven’t had GM field trials here since the late 1990s. The goal is to look at all of the environmental impacts, and to fill the vacuum that exists currently in terms of impartial knowledge.”