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Explainer: GM crop trials in Ireland

We take a closer look at a proposal to start trials on genetically modified potato crops in Ireland – and the hopes, fears and challenges associated with GM foods.

Image: Dan Joling/AP/Press Association Images

IRELAND’S AGRICULTURE AND Food Development Authority, Teagasc, has announced that it is seeking permission to begin trials on genetically modified potato crops in the country later this year.

If Teagasc’s application for a licence is granted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the trials would be the first study involving GM crops grown outside a laboratory setting to take place in Ireland.

Teagasc has said the trial is the next logical step in trying to understand the potential impact that GM crops could have on Irish ecosystems, and in trying to address the growing problem of blight in Irish potato crops – however, some environmental groups have come out against the proposals.

The issue of GM food is a highly emotive one, with both sides of the argument expressing concerns over the future of food in Ireland – and beyond. Here, we take a closer look at the step that is being proposed, and some of the hopes, fears and challenges associated with it.

What exactly is GM?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a genetically modified organism is one in which the “genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally”. The technology allows selected individual genes from organisms of the same species to be transferred from one to another, and also allows this to happen between non-related species.

GM foods are developed with the aim of giving an advantage to either the producer or consumer – for example, lower costs as a result of increased crop production, better durability of goods, or foods that offer higher nutritional values.

However, WHO Coordinator of Foodborne and Zoonotic Diseases Dr Awa Aidara-Kane told TheJournal.ie that GM technology is relatively new and still the subject of testing – and for that reason there is a ban in Europe on any GM product that has not passed “rigourous” assessments relating to its impact on human health and the environment.

Aidara-Kane said that the main areas examined when assessing a GM food product include: direct health affects and toxicity; how likely the food is to provoke an allergic reaction; the food’s potential nutritional value, and any possible side-effects.

She explained there was a moratorium in the European Union on any GM foods that have not been properly tested:

There is no GM food on the market in Europe that hasn’t gone through the WHO. They are all assessed on a case-by-case basis and go to market only when they are considered safe, and when the impact to human health and the environment is established.

Aidara-Kane said that the issue of GM plants containing antibiotic resistance marker genes was something that needed to be carefully handled – as there are suggestions that this could lead to a rise in the level of antibiotic-resistant bacteria: “So far there is no particular concern about this because the gene has to move from the plant to the human in order to be transferred to the intestinal tract,” she said. “The probability of this is very low – however, it cannot be excluded.”

What is Teagasc proposing to do – and why?

Teagasc has applied to the EPA for a licence to undertake a series of field studies using GM potatoes that are resistant to potato late blight disease. In observing the crops, scientists hope to determine the potential impact this technology could have on Irish ecosystems.

The proposed study, which would take four years to complete, would be located at the Teagasc Crops Research Centre at Oak Park, Co Carlow.

Teagasc researcher Dr Ewen Mullins said that potato blight – caused by Phytophthora infestans (the same fungus responsible for the Great Famine) - is becoming an increasing concern for Irish farmers, as it the favours warm, humid conditions the country experiences in summer: “Farmers currently use a lot of fungicides,” Mullins explained, “And while (the public) might bemoan the weather during the summer, it’s an absolute nightmare for farmers who have to deal with blight.”

“Crops face serious challenges ahead, not least of all because legislation from EU is demanding a decrease in the use of fungicides,” he added.

What would the research involve?

Researchers involved in the proposed project would study a line of late blight resistant wild potato, which has already been successfully bred in trials in the Netherlands, in the hopes of determining a way of decreasing the crop’s susceptibility to the fungus.

The crop would be planted at the Teagasc site in Carlow – 500 metres away from all other sites – where it would be monitored over a period of four years by a team of three or four scientists. Once the proposed trial came to an end, the site would then be allowed to go back to grass and would continue to be monitored for a further four or five years, in order to ensure that any weeds that may grow there could be destroyed in order to eliminate any risk of contamination.

Mullins said that because the line had already been bred successfully – and because similar GM trials had taken part in other countries – Teagasc researchers would know, in a large part, what to expect. However, he stressed that it was essential for researchers to carry out trials on Irish soil, as without doing so there could be no evidence to show how our specific ecosystem might react.

What are the objections?

The Green Party has described the Teasgasc’s application to the EPA as a “serious move”:

The planting of GM crops in an outdoor environment, where neither pollen nor seed can be controlled would end our country’s GM Free status for good.

The party’s Agriculture and Food spokesperson, Seamus Sheridan, said that Ireland relied heavily on its ‘green’ image when marketing agricultural produce – and that if the proposed trial went ahead, that image would be irreparably damaged.

He rejected the suggestion that GM technology could solve the problem of blight for potato-growers: “The introduction of GM potatoes will not solve the current problems of potato farmers or ensure their sustainability. Ask any farmer and they will tell you that poor prices are a far bigger issue than control of blight.”

“Multiple retailers must stop using potatoes as a tool in their price wars and respect the huge work and pride that goes into their growing and harvesting,” he added.

Sheridan agreed that research should continue on all aspects of plant protection, including blight resistant varieties, but said this should be done without the use of genetic modification. He also urged non-commercial growers to respect commercial farmers in their area by not leaving unharvested potatoes to become sources of blight.

Trials would take place outside of a laboratory

Tony Lowes, a director at Friends of the Irish Environment, said the group was opposed to Teagasc’s application because it was against any GM materials being grown outside a laboratory.

The move to plant GM crops in Irish soil presented a “Pandora’s box situation” because once GM organisms are introduced to an ecosystem they cannot be removed, Lowes insisted. He promised that would be a “concerted effort” to oppose the application by Teagasc.

In contrast, Mullins said that although the trial would be taking place outside a laboratory, the potato plant presented an “almost negligible” risk of gene-spreading. This assessment was based on the line scientists hoped to grow, and on the potato plant itself, which is a clonal crop.

“We need to study in the field because we’ve studied in glasshouses and in laboratory conditions – the next stage is to bring it out into the field to study the effect that this lien has on the environment, the disease organism, and soil biodiversity,” he said.

“The question of spreading genes isn’t really an issue with the potato – it’s a clonal crop, so pollen spread will have no effect on the tubers of other plants. Other crops, like maize for example, would have more of a problem in this regard,” Mullins added.

Teagasc researchers hope to plant a line called Désirée containing a single gene taken from a wild potato species from Central America:

It’s not your traditional GM crop. It doesn’t have genes taken from daffodils or anything like that – a practice that in itself raises ethical questions, and rightly so – but this gene is from another potato.

‘There are genuine fears amongst the public’

Mullins said he understood that people had serious concerns about GM food and the possible effects on the environment, and insisted that proper scientific research was the only way of establishing which fears were founded and which were not:

There are genuine fears amongst the public, so one of the main tasks of project is to have an outreach programme to listen to people. We plan to have open days, when hopefully people can come to the site and see the plants grow.

“It’s important to be clear that there is absolutely no biotech support for this project,” Mullins said, explaining that it would be funded by the European Commission’s Framework7 research programme.

Meanhwhile, Dr Aidara-Kane of the WHO expressed support for the trials like the one proposed by Teagasc, saying that it went “one step further” in understanding how GM crops would react with conventional foods and the environment.

“Controlled field tests are needed,” she said “It’s very important to do these before (a product) goes to market. Any good study should have two objectives – assessing the environmental impact and also determining if the technology is worthwhile for its purpose.”

The Teagasc application will take 90 days to be assessed, during which time members of the public can submit concerns or objections to the EPA

GM potato trials could be held in Carlow>

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