Too early to say if GM is viable option for Irish agriculture, Teagasc

It’s too early to say if genetically modified (GM) is a viable option for Irish agriculture, according to Teagasc’s senior research officer.

Speaking during a panel discussion entitled ‘Does Ireland need GM spuds?’ at the Grow It Yourself Gathering event during the Waterford Harvest Festival, Dr Ewen Mullins said more research is still needed on the issue.

“Is GM an option? We don’t know. That’s why we’re investigating it at the moment,” he said.

Dr Mullins established the genetic transformation and risk-assessment programme in 2002.  “Since we started in 2002, we have been asked questions about GM, not just potatoes but also wheat, barley and any other crop that has huge requirements of fungicides in Ireland,” he said.

“If you’re a commercial potato grower in Ireland you’re going to be putting out 15 or 20 sprays of fungicide to get your crop out of the ground. Nobody in their right mind would say that’s sustainable.”

Dr Mullins described the research work, which is currently being undertaken as part of the EU funded Amiga project at Oakpark Research Centre, County Carlow.

“The potato crop is one of the crops in Ireland that requires the most chemical inputs. We’re doing a study where we want to determine the impact of resistant genes which can resist blight. We want to look at the impact of these resistant genes on Irish blight,” he said.

He likened blight to influenza, saying: “There are different strains of flu, and there are different strains of blight. Blight has become highly aggressive in the past three to four years and we are concerned about that. Our studies aim to find out if these blight-resistant genes will work against Irish blight.”

Dr Mullins said there were many questions still to be asked before producing GM potatoes commercially.

“Our study is looking at one particular problem and one particular trait. At the end of that study, the results will be released, people can ask questions and we will answer those questions. Whether companies decided to use the information is outside of our influence. We have nothing to hide and people can then make their own decision on whether GM is an option for them or not.”

Asked if he would recommend the use of GM to companies or the Minister for Agriculture if the study found no ill-effects, Dr Mullins said there were other issues which also needed to be taken into account.

“If we don’t find any negative effect we will say there is no negative effect of growing that crop,” he said.

“However, it could well happen that the variety we have breaks down in the next year or two. But that reiterates the importance of doing these studies because it shows how progressive blight can be,” he added.

By Kieran Foley

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