Spud Sunday: GM Spuds

“I despise patents.”

So declared Cathal Garvey at the recent For Food’s Sake event on the future of food.
Cathal is one of a new breed of so-called bio-hackers, which he explains as the use of biotechnology techniques “to do amazing things with very little.” As he talked about a brave new world of diy genetic testing and sequencing, you could see that here was a young man who wanted to harness the power of biotechnology for good – “to create cheap antibiotics on-site in Africa, to create biofuels from household wastes, and to help us grow more food with less chemicals, water and land.” Wow. An ambitious fella too, then, but in the very best sense of that word.

Right from the off, he made it clear that he didn’t like either of the traditional sides of the GM debate, but sees, rather, that the problem is not GM per se but the patents that are held on GM crops, which reduce bio-diversity, prevent people from seed-saving and put ownership of the food supply in the hands of patent owners. For someone like me, who is predisposed to think all genetic modification undesirable, the presentation certainly provided food for thought.

I was put in mind of Cathal’s talk this week, when it was reported in the papers that Teagasc, the agriculture and food development authority, have applied for a license to do outdoor trials at their research centre in Oak Park, Co. Carlow on potatoes which have been genetically modified in order to enhance their resistance to late blight.

new potatoes

nothing GM about these potatoes...

Cue an impassioned response from those of an anti-GM persuasion – it’s always been an emotive topic (and, given our particular history with the potato, blight can be an emotive topic too). Teagasc stand firm on the fact that their work – which is funded by the EU and does not have links to any food or seed companies – is not about testing commercial viability but 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.” They have also taken precautions in terms of isolating the proposed test fields from other crops, while the Farmer’s Journal say that they will ask Teagasc scientists to respond to all specific GM concerns raised.

Those on the other side of the argument would prefer it if Teagasc stuck to their conventional potato breeding programs. Regardless of the ways in which GM may or may not have moved on in recent years, a distrust of GM remains common, based on the idea that we’re interfering with nature and that there’s an inherent unpredictability in what might result. Seamus Sheridan, he of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers and also agriculture and food spokesperson for the Green Party, is of the opinion that such a move flies in the face of Ireland as being the green, natural food island. There’s little point, as he sees it, in being able to more reliably produce a potato that consumers will ultimately shun because it comes with a GM label. It, equally, does not solve or even address the bigger problems facing potato growers, many of which relate to the sheer difficulty of making any kind of a margin with the prices being paid to them by supermarkets. Who will win the day, I don’t know, but you can probably guess where my heart lies.

‘Tis far from GM spuds you’ll be if you head to the annual Potato Day at the Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co. Leitrim next Sunday, March 11th. This year, they are marking 15 years of Potato Day with a free event which will include advice on varieties, planting demonstrations, Dave Langford’s heritage potato collection, guided tours, guest speakers, seed potatoes for sale and more.

If you want to get some idea of what to expect, you can click through to read all about what happened last year, the year before and even the year before that. And before you ask, of course I’ll be there this year. Silly question.

Comments
  • Interesting topic, my view would be like Cathal Garvey’s: I’ve no problems with genetic modification (we have been genetically modifying plants and animals since agriculture began 11,000 years ago) but the practices of some of the corporations involved can be terrible. It’s kind of hard to have a rational debate about this unfortunately because it’s become such an emotive topic but used properly I think GM can play a major role in feeding an increasing world population.

  • It is both an interesting and emotive topic Stef – I’d love to understand more about the technology involved (which is, I think, less scary than the power that can be wielded when large corporations and patents become involved)

  • i am back living in ireland for the last 13 years i yet to eat a potato like the ones in america

  • Hi Michael – does that mean the spuds here are better, worse or just different from the US varieties – whaddya reckon?

  • I think there’s a huge difference between cross pollinating to select for certain traits, encouraging naturally occurring genetic mutations, and the craziness that goes on in the US. This whole business of engineering seeds to make their own pesticides (never eat non-organic corn in the US) to splicing genes from animals into tomatoes (do not get me started). “Benign GM” is the thin end of the wedge. And nobody knows what this tinkering does to the way we digest and utilize these mucked-about-with foods. Ew.

  • I have to say that just makes me glad I don’t live in the States anymore Jenni (having said that, though, I’d still like to be your neighbour!)

  • Naturally occurring genetic mutations can be as deleterious as man-made ones, the mechanisms are the same. For example, the changes to wheat that have been made over the past 100 years to improve yields were all done using conventional selective breeding yet there’s plenty of people who think the increase in coeliac disease and gluten intolerance are directly related to this. However, without those increases in yields millions of people whould have died of starvation; you get nothing for free, there’s always a cost/benefit side to these things.

  • It’s a complicated business, that’s for sure Stef – there are no easy answers

  • Very true, Stef. There are two sides to every coin, of course. My point is that, for me, it is less scary to channel Mendel than Frankenstein. ;)

    And, DS, I would love to be your neighbor. We just won’t eat corn. Ever. 8D

  • It’s a deal Jenni!

  • I don’t understand why these plant breeders haven’t gone back to the source for varieties which are naturally blight resistant. There are still something like 300 varieties of potato in Peru, most of which pre-date the Inca!

  • Fair point Jan and I suspect that there are even more varieties than that in Peru. There are certainly some breeding programs which do incorporate the use of old South American varieties when breeding for various traits, not just blight resistance, like the work on the Phureja potatoes by Mylnefield Research Services in the UK.

  • I have decided to start on my St Patricks Day parade entry. Did I miss the announcement or are you passing this year? GREG

  • No, you didn’t miss it Greg – been so much stuff going on hereabouts that I didn’t get to put the call out this year. Still hoping to do some kind of mini-parade with a selection of suitable Irish foods and I’d more than happily link to whatever Irishness you’re planning! x

  • [...] Spud Sunday: GM Spuds (14) [...]

  • Just discovered your great spud blog via todays Irish Times. no2gm is a new ngo dedicated to keeping Ireland free from cultivation of GM crops. The potato trials though harmless in the way they are being presented nevertheless are setting a precident that growing GM crops on Irish soil is ok. I think that there is now a sufficient bank of evidence wordwide that demonstrates that this technology disempowers farmers and has done little by way of “feeding the world”. Feeding the world will be achieved through ecological intensification and ensurimng that subsistance farmers can save seeds and minimise their dependence on outside inputs. Agro ecological systems achieve this very well in places where these very inputs are not available. I would suggest that we look again at the more sinister aspects of GM and especially at what happened to Dr Arpad Putzai when his experimental results on potatoes fed to rats proved less than palatabal to the GM proponents. If you wish to raise your objections to the spud trials why not register is now by signing the petition @ http://www.no2gm.com and help to keep Irelands food reputation intact.

  • [...] the Irish agriculture and food development authority, who, last week, were successful in their application for a license to conduct field trials on genetically modified potatoes at their Oak Park Research Centre in Co. Carlow. The trials, which should enable the environmental [...]

  • [...] Given the hoo-hah that we’ve seen in Ireland this year, with Teagasc getting the go-ahead for field trials of GM potatoes, this may be of more than a passing interest to some of you. Details here.     [...]

  • [...] started earlier this year as a reaction to the granting of approval here in Ireland to Teagasc to trial potatoes which have been genetically modified to encourage blight resistance. In advance of what turned out to be a very blight-conducive summer, SPUDS provided volunteer [...]

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