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Information on GM Potato Research

Independent GM Research Required for Informed Debate

Dr Ewen Mullins

3 September 2012

On July 27th the EPA gave consent to Teagasc to start its field-based research study of a GM potato variety, which in separate European studies has displayed durable resistance to potato late blight disease. The goal of the study is to research the impact of the GM potato on the blight disease itself and on soil organisms, which are essential to maintaining soil health.

The GM potato variety we are researching was generated by scientists in Wageningen University, The Netherlands, and has been made available to Teagasc via a standard material transfer agreement. As such we can, and will fully disseminate our research findings, in whole, to the Irish public upon completion of our study.

There is no ‘commercial contract’ in place at the end of the proposed study as Teagasc is not in the business of commercialising or promoting GM crops. The current study is publicly funded through the EU’s 7th Framework research initiative and is part of a larger research consortium of 22 public agencies/universities across 15 countries (www.amigaproject.eu).

Claims that pollen from the site will contaminate potato crops in the vicinity are incorrect and not based on fact. Irrespective of whether it is GM or not, the clonal biology of the potato plant means that pollen from the flowers of one potato crop have no impact on the content of tubers harvested from a neighbouring potato crop. In fact you could pour buckets of GM pollen on an organic/conventional potato field and it will have zero impact on what you harvest from that field.

The completion of this study will not impact on our food exports. Since the last outdoor GM field study was conducted in Ireland in the 1990’s over €90 billion worth of Irish food and drink has been exported onto consumer markets around the world. Over 800 similar field studies, to the one currently underway, have been completed on GM crops across the EU since 2002 and no member state has indicated an issue between the occurrence of the GM studies and public negativity towards their food exports.

As the state authority with responsibility for the development of the Irish agriculture and food sector, Teagasc invests millions in environmental research, to develop sustainable farming practices that protect soil biodiversity and minimise the impact on our waterways. As such it is illogical to suggest that Teagasc would initiate a study that in any way would compromise our ability to develop the Irish agri-food sector and promote Ireland as a producer of first class food.

Presently, Irish farmers spray fungicides on their potato crop an average of 15 times per season to control the fungus that causes potato blight disease. During the wet summers of 2008 and 2009 conventional farmers struggled to control the disease. The summer of 2012 has seen little change. While the traditional response has been to apply synthetic for conventional and copper-based fungicides for organic crops, this continued practise is undesirable from a number of perspectives.

The situation is clearly not sustainable but it takes up to 15 years to breed a single variety. You may ask are there no resistant varieties available? At the moment there is no commercially available variety that ticks all the boxes. Sarpo Mira is a variety grown by gardeners and some organic producers that has strong blight resistance but unfortunately lacks traits processors and consumers require. Of interest Sarpo Mira was developed over many decades by breeding in genes from wild potato species. Similarly the GM potato line that Teagasc has started to study also has a gene taken from a wild potato species.

It is critical to highlight that the outcome of our study could be positive or negative in terms of ecological impact but it is our responsibility to supply the knowledge without prejudice. Teagasc is committed to disseminating all research findings to the public and during the study the trial site will be accessible to the public for open days and information sessions. We hope that all stakeholders, both in favour and against GM crops will actively participate in these events so that the public can experience a broad, honest and respectful discussion and come to conclusions based on factual information.