The ongoing GMO study on potatoes at Teagasc Oak Park is focussed on addressing many of the persistent questions that exist in regard to dealing with the evolving tillage challenge associated with late blight attack, according to research scientist Dr Ewen Mullins.

“All of the tubers planted out this spring were harvested before October 31, which is in line with the license parameters agreed for the trials,” he said.

“As expected the GM cultivar continues to demonstrate resistance against late blight attack but the important question is how durable is this resistance and what is the impact of managing this resistance on levels of soil biodiversity.

“A key focus of our work is quantifying how blight strains found in our environment respond to this novel source of resistance, which is derived from a wild potato species that originates in South America.

“While blight as an organism is constantly evolving against fungicides and other control strategies, not enough research has been done to date on how blight strains adapt genetically to new sources of resistance.”

Next year will mark the third and last year of the potato planting trial at Oak Park, which has also been replicated in separate studies in Holland, conducted by the University of Wageningen. Both studies are being undertaken within the scope of the EU-funded AMIGA project, which is focussed on assessing and monitoring the impact of specific GMO crops on the agro-ecosystem.

But Ewen Mullins says that a pure focus on the blight-resistance facets of the current GMO trial overlooks its significance in a more general sense.

“Fundamentally, we are seeking to identify what impact this novel source of genetic resistance, introduced into the variety Desiree using GMO technology, will have, in tandem with conventional blight management and potato husbandry techniques, on soil biodiversity and fertility,” he said.

“This is important work as the sector has many questions about GMO and novel crop breeding technologies. We can only answer these questions if we perform Irish-based studies. While it has been commented that the three-year period of the current trial is too short and that it should be extended out to five years, it is important to note that three successive years will provide adequate datasets that will allow us to draw conclusions with statistical certainty.

“As a result, the work being completed in the AMIGA project will provide the important background information on the impact of this specific GM crop within Irish conditions. This is not about short or medium term impacts. On the contrary, these type of studies are about blue sky thinking and working through scenarios which may or may not come into play at some future stage.”