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Teagasc receives licence from EPA to investigate the environmental impact of GM blight resistant potatoes

Teagasc confirm that they have been awarded a license by the EPA to carry out field research on a GM potato, designed to resist potato blight disease. Teagasc propose to carry out the research over the next 4 years in order to determine the impact this technology could have on the Irish agri-environment. The work is being completed as part of the 22 partner ‘AMIGA’ consortium that represents 15 EU countries and is funded through the EU’s Framework 7 research programme. Critically, the biotech industry has no association with this public-funded research project.

Teagasc is currently evaluating the license conditions and putting the necessary measures in place to ensure that it fully meets its obligations as required by the EPA. Once this has been achieved to the satisfaction of the EPA, the work will commence 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 but as Teagasc researcher Dr. Ewen Mullins said: “We cannot 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 in carefully controlled conditions. 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.”

The organism (Phytophthora infestans), which causes late blight disease, has shown in the past that it can decimate the Irish potato crop. It remains a very real threat to Irish potato growers. 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 fungicide 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.

The urgent need for the research is highlighted by the current conditions being faced by farmers, who are struggling to control blight disease in the 2012 potato crop. While the agronomic 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 order to meet this need Teagasc will also launch an outreach programme with stakeholders and the public to coincide with the establishment of the experiment, 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. There are no linkages to the biotech industry on this matter so 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, blight and the ecosystem, reacts to GM varieties in the field over several seasons.”