Fielding the questions

Last year, Teagasc planted 24 GM potato plants and 24 non-GM plants - while the non-GM potatoes died from blight, the GM variety remained green
Last year, Teagasc planted 24 GM potato plants and 24 non-GM plants - while the non-GM potatoes died from blight, the GM variety remained green

A trial of GM potatoes by Teagasc is attracting an ever greater amount of public interest. Gillian Hamill spoke to senior research officer Dr. Ewen Mullins to learn more about what's involved



9 August 2013

Share this post:



The topic of genetically modified (GM) foods is clearly an emotive subject, as demonstrated by a recent campaign launched in the UK by The Daily Mail, with the attention-grabbing title, ‘Frankenstein Food Watch’. There are undoubtedly strong views both for and against GM foods across Ireland too, according to Dr. Ewen Mullins, senior research officer at Teagasc’s Crop Science Department, which is currently conducting a three year field trial of GM potatoes at its grounds in Oak Park, Carlow. However he believes the public’s overall feeling is that people are glad this type of research is being conducted by an impartial party.

A spectrum of opinions

Speaking about Teagasc’s latest open day which attracted an impressive 1,000 strong crowd, he says: "You get a great mix of people, some are totally against it, some people are not in favour of GM but they don’t mind us doing the research; they’re happy that we’re doing the research. And then you have some farmers who are wondering why they can’t just grow them straight away so you get a real spectrum of opinions but there’s no doubt the overall opinion was that people were happy that we were doing it and it wasn’t being done by the biotech industry or somebody on behalf of the biotech industry. Whereas they could do it fine – they’d be scientifically sound – they wouldn’t be impartial."

But what exactly does Teagasc’s research involve? On 27 July 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave consent to Teagasc to start its field-based research study of a GM potato variety, which in separate European studies has displayed durable resistance to potato late blight disease. The research which is funded by the EU Seventh Framework Programme as part of the Amiga (Assessing and Monitoring the Impacts of genetically modified plants on Agro-ecosystems) project, has three primary goals. Namely, to quantify the impact of the GM potato on soil microbes (e.g. bacteria, fungi, worms etc) to see how well an ‘integrated pest management strategy’ controls blight disease and to research the impact of the GM potato on the organism that causes blight disease.

While some anti-GM campaigners protested against the trial when it was announced last year, it is worth remembering that technically, Ireland was not actually GM-free before the experiment began. "We import huge amounts of [GM] animal feed and a lot of that animal feed was critical during the recent fodder crisis," says Dr. Mullins. "So we’re not GM free. We don’t grow any GM crops here commercially so that is the difference."

He is adamant moreover that the experiment will not damage Ireland’s environmental reputation. "There would be no way Teagasc would even contemplate entering into a research study that would in any way compromise the [country’s] green image. We invest millions every year on environmental research that underpins our agricultural system so it would make no sense to do something like that." 

A non-GM plant

A non-GM plant

No commercial plan

What’s more, Mullins is keen to emphasise that Teagasc’s research is in no way commercially driven. "This is just a three year field study that’s all, there’s no path to commercialisation, there’s no commercial contract at the end of it," he says. "This is just an environmental study; at the end of the three years we will release the data after it’s been scientifically assessed and reviewed and then that’s it. That’s the experiment done."

It was key therefore in his view, not to construct sinister prison-like security measures which would instil fear in people’s minds about the work being conducted. "I think it’s important from the moment we lodged the application for permission to start the experiment with the EPA, we were very open and frank about the what, the why and everything about the study. In the UK and in the Netherlands, in Belgium, they have put up massive security measures and in one or two cases they haven’t worked. So we need to re-examine what it is that we’re trying to do here because to be fair, if you put up large security fencing and razor wire and then you put plants behind it, there’s an instant impression of fear so we don’t think it’s necessary. The EPA has given us guidance on what’s required, so we meet the licence conditions in that regard and that’s why the field is right beside the carpark here in Oak Park. We’re not hiding it anywhere round the estate, we’ve 500 acres here, there’s a couple of other places it could have gone to, but no, we made the decision to keep it open and I think people appreciate that as well."

Cutting back on fungicides

Mullins is similarly open about the reasons that lie behind the decision to conduct the trial. "The first one is that we know commercial potatoes require a ridiculous amount of fungicides. They get up to 15 [fungicide sprays] but really we had guys last year spraying up to 20 times…Since ‘85 we’ve had a blight year every year except for five or six of them so there’s always blight around.

"We therefore have a very high requirement for fungicides, and that’s not sustainable on two grounds. One, from an environmental perspective, nobody wants to be putting out that amount of fungicides, but secondly from an EU legislation perspective. The EU with its new pesticides directive is prohibiting the use of many of the chemicals that farmers are currently using, not just in potatoes but across all crops, so the options at a chemical level are decreasing and yet our requirement for their usage is increasing."

Utilising wild blight resistance

Another important reason for conducting the study was to see if GM potatoes which were found to be blight resistant in the Netherlands would experience a similar fate here. Mullins explains that another of Amiga’s partners, the Wageningen University, had created GM potato lines using genes from wild potato varieties originating from Central and South America, which had developed blight resistance over millions of years of evolution. The scientists then inserted blight resistant genes from these wild potatoes "into commercial varieties that have the traits that people want, which is basically a uniform tuber, a certain taste, certain looks, skin colour, all the factors that would tick the boxes for the consumer but that in terms of blight resistance wouldn’t come anywhere near the wild potatoes".

The GM potatoes used in the Netherlands performed well and didn’t "show any signs of blight disease at all". According to Mullins, this was a "promising" prospect, given that "the strains of blight they have in the Netherlands would be strains we have here in Ireland". Yet although this was the case, he adds: "We had to put them into the ground here last year and we did that to see if they would resist Irish blight because it’s not good enough to say, they stood up well in Holland and I’m sure they’ll be fine in Ireland; we had to put them into the field. We put out 24 plants of the GM and 24 plants of the non-GM variety and the non-GM died off from blight and the GM were green; there was no sign of blight in them at all."

The experimental phase

While the results from year one show the GM potatoes did successfully resist blight, the study is far from over and the research has yet to be published. In fact, the project’s second phase is only beginning. Mullins notes: "The first phase was proof of concept basically and this year, next year and 2015 is the experimental phase [which has] a much larger experimental site and within that, we have three varieties, we have the GM, we have the non-GM and we have Sarpo Mira which is a variety favoured by organic growers because it has really excellent blight resistance." In fact, he explains that Sarpo Mira actually has five of the wild blight resistance genes whereas the GM variety only has one and the team is keen to see how blight will respond to the two different potatoes.

The phase two varieties were planted in early June, and at the time of ShelfLife‘s interview, the emphasis was very much on keeping them watered every day to ensure they didn’t fall foul of drought, before the team will remove everything from the field by the end of October. As well as monitoring blight if it occurs, the second phase will also examine the impact of these plants on soil biodiversity. This will involve collecting several samples and freezing them so that they can be processed and analysed during the winter season as the researcher says there is simply not enough time to collect and analyse all the samples during the busy summertime period. 

Standing over the statistics

In order to obtain accurate results, Mullins says it is essential to continue the study for three successive years, with three successive crop yields. "If we did [the trial] for one year and say we found an effect, say for example, the GM soil microbes under the GM were 50% less than the non-GM. The question then would be whether you have found a real effect or an annual effect that just occurred that year. So hence we have to do three years and do multiple samples across the field because we might find in one part of the field, there is not the same phenomenon that we’re registering across all of the field." In Mullin’s opinion, it’s crucial to obtain these "very strong statistics", because the team have to be able to "stand over" their findings.

The EPA also attached eight "non-negotiable" conditions to the trial before granting its licence, which Mullins says involves regular inspections, high accountability and traceability of samples. "It’s basically to ensure that material does not escape outside the site so if we’re harvesting we make sure that the tubers aren’t stuck under the tractor wheels, we have to count all the tubers and make sure that what leaves the field arrives into our store."

Remaining impartial and objective is subsequently paramount for Teagasc. "I think it’s critical because you can’t have any speculative or subjective comments when you come to an issue like this," says Mullins. "It’s important for people to have answers and you can only base answers on solid data, not on rhetorical opinions. 

"That’s why when people have asked us will you release your data after year one or year two, we say we won’t. We won’t be releasing any data until our whole experiment has finished because then we’ll have statistical confidence in our data. If we release it after 12 months, those results will gather steam, irrespective of whatever way they go; they could be used by one side or the other and then you’re not serving any purpose really."

Research for down the line

This is even more important given that Mullins believes people want to educate themselves more on the GM topic. "I would have really have noticed it going out. I did a lot of what we call KT or knowledge transfer events, interviews and public debates, discussion groups…For consumers it’s probably not on their radar right now because there are so many other issues that people are concerned about in their daily lives that this doesn’t register as a priority and indeed right now, it’s not a decision that people probably have to make much because we have no problem with food supplies. But this is not research for now, it’s research for down the line so it’s important to have the study done before any questions start to be asked."

And when asked how he thinks retailers perceive the GM issue, he responded: "I think they’re aware of it because we’d hear through third channels and whatever but again it’s a matter of prioritisation. I think it’s not really registering because it’s not really that important right now. That’s my own perception of it, I could be wrong. I suppose it would be interesting to see what the main retailers would say. I suppose they’ll be driven by consumer demand and consumer queries in that regard."
Overall, Mullins concedes the GM issue is not an easy topic with ready answers. However as the researcher says: "It’s a very difficult subject to work on; there’s no doubt about that, but just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing it."



Share this post:

Back to Top ↑

Shelflife Magazine