The Daily Spud

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Spud Sunday: The Blighty Spud

I do apologise. This is long and – for a spud sunday – it is somewhat late, but the gnarliness of the subject matter made it so. Spuds can get quite weighty at times, but I do love ’em all the same.

1. Three large bottles of Bulmers cider.
2. One 12-pack of Tayto crisps.
3. One box of Rennie’s indigestion tablets.

That’s what the ladies ahead of me at the Centra supermarket counter were buying around teatime on a Saturday evening. I presumed – and who amongst us can resist passing judgement on our neighbours’ shopping baskets – that it was the anticipated ingestion of items one and two that (hic!) had lead to the need for item three. Welcome to a little slice of modern Irish eating.

GIY Gathering

I was on my way home from a day spent at the GIY Gathering in Waterford – the 5th annual conference of the ever expanding Grow It Yourself movement – and was trying to decide what I made of the day, including the closing panel debate which dealt with the rather weighty question of whether Ireland needs GM potatoes (a subject worthy of carrying its own public health warning: this may hurt your head and you may find certain aspects hard to swallow and/or digest). I eyed up the Rennie’s but decided that it was going to take something a bit stronger to cope with the assimilation of it all.

The theme of the GIY Gathering was food empathy, the idea that growing even a small amount of your own food has effects far beyond the satisfaction of putting something homegrown on your dinner plate – among them an increased awareness of locality and seasonality, a tendency to waste less and recycle more and, as Mark Diacono of Otter Farm summed it up in the opening panel discussion, a better understanding of our food choices. Does that mean that GIYers spurn supermarkets and convenience foods? Not necessarily (hey, I was in the Centra too, remember?) but, anecdotally, they probably have something other than cider and crisps for their tea of a Saturday evening.

taytos

As for spuds, home growers are certainly more likely to take an interest in, and have very definite opinions on, the genetic modification of food crops and the granting, last year, of a license to Teagasc – the Irish agriculture and food development authority – to conduct field trials on a potato genetically engineered to have greater blight resistance. Unsurprising, then, there was much interest in the closing panel debate on the first day of the GIY Gathering, which asked whether Ireland needed this particular brand of spud. The speakers included Dr. Ewen Mullins of Teagasc, Dr. David Shaw of the Sárvari Research Trust in Wales which develops the Sárpo range of naturally blight resistant potatoes, Kaethe Burt-O’Dea of the SPUDS project which encourages community research into the viability of naturally blight resistant potatoes and Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery School and well-known to all as an advocate of good Irish food.

On the plus side, the debate did not end in fisticuffs (as I heard Darina Allen comment afterward), a reflection on the fact that it managed not be as polarised as discussions on GM usually are. On the minus side – and though moderator Ella McSweeney did her best to keep it on track – it meandered, at times, off the core topic and into aspects of potatoes that had nothing to do with GM and aspects of GM that had little bearing on the Teagasc trial, while perhaps missing an opportunity to dig into more specifics of the trial and what is – and, perhaps, more importantly, what isn’t – being tested exactly.

Apart from the obvious point that there are no easy answers, here’s what I do know about the whys and wherefores of the Teagasc GM potato trial. You may need cider, crisps, Rennie’s or all of the above to get you through this, and I apologise in advance for any headaches or indigestion caused. If you want to hurt your head even more, you can read the Teagasc Q & A on the GM trial over here.

1. Blight is a big problem. It’s complex, it’s evolving and it’s not going away.

2. Commercial potato farmers have to spray against blight using increasing amounts of fungicide (15-20 sprays per season, costing in the region of €50K-€70K each year for a farm of about 400 hectares according to Ewen Mullins). They would like to spray less, or not at all, both from a cost point of view and, one would like to think, from the point of view of the environment too.

3. GM methods can accelerate the process of breeding potatoes with high levels of blight resistance – and hence a reduced need for spraying – from an estimated 17 years using conventional methods to about 4-5 years, according to Teagasc. The questions around this are twofold – at what cost the GM approach and what are the alternatives?

4. In one way, perhaps the biggest risk in going down the GM route is that ultimate public acceptability of a GM potato remains an open question. Europeans are, in general, known to be suspicious of all things GM, though the style of GM being applied in the Teagasc trial – dubbed cisgenic and based on using genes from a wild potato species – may be more palatable to the public, as it does not involve transferring genes from one genus to another, as between animals and plants. Perhaps this is safer but testing the safety of what is produced is not a specific part of the Teagasc field trial, which looks at blight behaviour and effects on soil microbes and insect populations. It’s a question they will need to answer.

5. GM is also perceived as being at odds with the Ireland’s green ‘Food Island’ image, regardless of how different this particular trial may or may not be from other GM work carried out elsewhere. Teagasc deflect this issue by pointing out that imported GM feeds are already being fed to many of the animals on our farms, so we probably aren’t as green as we’d like to think anyway. Make of that what you will.

6. That the Teagasc trial is not commercial nor linked to any biotech company but based on publicly funded European research is a positive – one of the big issues with GM is the commercial control exerted by the likes of Monsanto over technologies and seeds. Nevertheless, if no adverse environmental impacts are reported as a result of these trials then – no matter what Teagasc say – I think that there remains a danger that this would be seen as tacit approval for GM generally, rather than a very specific outcome of a very specific trial.

Blue Danube Potatoes

Blue Danube Potatoes, a GM alternative?

7. The Sárpo varieties are a bit of an elephant in the room for the GM trials. These are potatoes that have been shown to have high levels of natural blight resistance (as well as lower levels of virus susceptibility and very good storage characteristics). Teagasc appear to disregard them as an option because of poor eating and processing qualities, though the SPUDS community-based research project has demonstrated that these are potatoes that can do well on a plate (with Blue Danube proving most popular from a taste point of view, while floury Sárpo Axona also has its fans). One could speculate that the reason Sárpo Mira has, this year, been included as a reference in the field trial is precisely because it’s a variety that has been given a voice through community research. Kaethe Burt-O’Dea, founder of the SPUDS project, would argue we should make more of the natural alternatives that exist, yet the Sárvari Research Trust which develops these potatoes struggles to source funding to continue its work. It’s enough to make you reach for the Rennie’s alright.

8 Comments

  1. Excellent and important post, Aoife. Thanks for writing.

  2. Daily Spud

    Monday, September 16, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    Thanks June, much appreciated.

  3. Sorry to hear our Q and A on http://www.gmoinfo.ie gives you a headache Aoife and that you didn’t get answers to some if your questions on Saturday. Would be happy to talk to you if you need clarification on anything.
    Ewen

  4. Your offer is much appreciated Ewen (and apologies for having misspelt your name in the text – corrected now).

    I suppose the Q & A has the potential to be headache-inducing because the subject matter itself and the issues surrounding it can be difficult to get one’s head around. Without being a geneticist or plant scientist, I have to rely on I’m told about the processes involved and their possible implications (of course, with GM, what one is told can vary greatly, depending on who is doing the telling).

    Personally, I’d like to understand more about the mechanics of the cisgenic transfer and also more about the soil tests – is there an element that tests the effects on soil and insects of a non-GM crop that has been sprayed versus one that hasn’t? I got that impression from the debate but I wasn’t clear if that was the case. Would also like to know if there are any plans to do tests on the GM tubers. I could probably sit for quite a while writing down many other questions, but I will take you up on your offer to have a chat about it in due course.

  5. When the Conquistadores arrived in Peru, there were hundreds of varieties of potatoes, of all sizes, colors, composition, etc. There is some speculation that Macchu Picchu might have been a research facility for testing plants. One never hears of the blight in Peru, where blight-resistant breeds still exist. We may have to accept the fact that monoculture of a few cherished varieties is a doomed proposition. What’s the matter with blue color, anyhow?

  6. For a start Janet, I’d say that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a blue colour as far as potatoes go (although, having said that, my late father was pretty nonplussed the one and only time I served him some home-grown blue-fleshed potatoes, but that’s another matter entirely!). On this particular issue, I think that colour, either of potato skin or flesh, is not an issue at all (and popularity or otherwise of a potato like Blue Danube – which is blue skinned but white-fleshed – is, I would say, certainly not colour-based but related to other growing, eating and processing characteristics).

    Re: your point about South American potatoes, it is very true that many of the native wild and cultivated species of Andean potato do show high natural blight resistance as well as other desirable properties and this fact has been applied to breeding potatoes in Europe (both with GM and traditional breeding methods, as I understand it: the Teagasc GM trial is based on adding genes from a South American species of potato (Solanum Venturii) into the variety Desirée, a commercial variety that traditionally does not have good blight resistance, and a number of Phureja varieties (such as Mayan Gold) have been derived over the last number of years in Scotland based on plant material from the S. Phureja species, long cultivated in the Andes).

    As for having to accept that we may have to let go of cherished varieties in favour of other varieties that do better in a blighty environment, that may well be the unavoidable reality. The issue which causes contention in the case of the GM trial is more a matter of how these other, more blight resistant varieties, are developed. I suspect that we are unlikely to see widespread adoption of lots of different South American varieties as-is for various reasons (but among them the fact that they are unlikely to be suited to large scale commercial processing) but they will continue to used as the basis of breeding new varieties, in whatever manner that breeding is done.

  7. Hi Spud, I grew up in the floral industry. My mother and I one day tried to count the changes in your standard commercial red rose. It seemed the variety of choice changed every three to five years, you would find a variety you liked and it would slowly be replaced by another. You know that list was longer than our collective memory, disease and blight have a way with keeping up with advances, especially in fields committed to certain crops. Just an aside, an anecdote, from a non expert in growing fields.
    Cheers,
    Brian.

  8. Thanks for the story Brian, seems like nothing much stands still in the plant world

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