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.
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.
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.
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.