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GM potato trials could be held in Carlow

The Agriculture and Food Development Authority, Teagasc, is seeking a licence to grow GM potatoes in order to examine the potential impact on Irish ecosystems.

Image: Perry French via Creative Commons/Flickr

IRELAND’S AGRICULTURE AND Food Development Authority is seeking permission to begin trials on genetically modified crops in Ireland later this year.

Teagasc yesterday announced its application to obtain a licence from the Environmental Protection Agency in order to plant GM potatoes at its research centre in Oak Park, Co Carlow. The authority said research had confirmed that GM late blight potatoes had the potential to “significantly reduce the fungicide load on the environment”, as well as providing an economic benefit to farmers.

The proposed research, which would take place over four years, would examine the possible long-term impacts that GM potatoes crops could have on Irish ecosystems. “It is not enough to simply look at the benefits without also considering the potential costs,” said Teagasc researcher Dr Ewen Mullins.

The authority said the agronomic and economic benefits of using GM crops “to deliver novel control strategies for late blight disease” were evident – but that the public’s need to receive impartial information on the issue was clear.

“Pandora’s box”

However, environmentalist groups have voiced strong concerns over the application. Tony Lowes, one of the directors of Friends of the Irish Environment, said that the issue of introducing GM crops to Irish soil presented a “Pandora’s box situation” – saying that once GM organisms were introduced to an ecosystem they could not be removed.

“We are opposed to any GM materials being grown outside a laboratory,” Lowe said. “Mistakes are common – they have caused exceedingly complex problems all over the world.”

Lowes added that there would be a “concerted effort” to oppose the application by Teagasc.

Study “not about testing commercial viability”

Head of crops research in Teagasc John Spink said that the proposed field study would be isolated from the conventional potato growing programme at the Oak Park site, which has been on-going for the past 40 years. He insisted that Teagasc’s work was “not about testing the commercial viability of GM potatoes,” adding:

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.

Teagasc says the same pathogen that was responsible for the Great Famine in the 1840s remained a “very real threat” to Irish potato growers today, with the arrival of as new – more aggressive – strains into the country over the past four years. Mullins explained that farmers were responding to this by applying more fungicides – but that this situation was not sustainable, particularly in light of new EU laws demanding a reduction of the amount of chemicals applied to crops.

Read: EU proposes to harmonise GM food tolerance policy>

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