Genetically modified potatoes are studied, criticized in Ireland

20.03.2013

The Washington Post

Published on 17 March 2013 by Adrian Higgins
 
Ewen Mullins is the face of modern Ireland: Young, cosmopolitan, highly educated, he is a plant scientist whose work on a genetically modified potato inherently looks to the future.  But Mullins also must think back to one of Ireland’s darkest chapters, the Great Famine of the 1840s.
 
Mullins deals daily with a disease that not only afflicts his native land but haunts it: the potato blight, a pernicious rot caused by a fungus that still thrives in Ireland’s wet, cold climate [...] 
 
From the end of May until harvest, farmers [...] spray fungicides every seven to 14 days, depending on the weather [...]
 
Without the sprays, the potato fields of Ireland would echo the destruction that began in 1845, when the blight took hold in Flanders and moved like wildfire to the British Isles. In Ireland, where a gentry descended from British settlers and absentee landlords farmed most of the land for income, an impoverished peasantry relied on the potato as its staple.
 
After the crop failures of 1845 and 1846 turned to starvation, British relief efforts were inadequate or inept and dealt more with reform “than with saving lives,” writes John Kelly, in a new account of the famine, “The Graves Are Walking.” In some instances, survivors were stashing bodies behind walls “for retrieval later, when the family came into coffin money.”
 
The potato Mullins is testing is one of three varieties created seven years ago by scientists at the University of Wageningen using donor genes from about half a dozen species of wild potato in Mexico and Argentina. Once the potatoes are successfully tested, the Dutch university will grant licenses to companies that want to introduce them, with European Union approval, but on a non-exclusive basis to avoid monopoly control, said Anton Haverkort, project leader. In addition, the potatoes will be available free in developing countries with a humanitarian need.
 
For Mullins, the trial began modestly last summer with a preliminary assessment of just 24 plants, but the power of the genetically engineered potato was soon evident. In one of the worst years in memory for blight, he saw untreated conventional potato plants quickly turn black and collapse. The GM version, known officially as A15-031, shrugged off the pathogen.
 

View the graphic on how Ireland seeks to fight potato blight