Does Ireland need Genetic Engineering?

The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.

So wrote John Mitchell, one of the leading Irish political writers of the day, in his tract on the Irish famine The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) c.1861.

While there were clear political causes for the famine of 1845- Ireland was still a British colony- the proximate cause was Phytophthora infestans the fungus responsible for late potato blight., which continues to reduce potato yields to this day.

Recently Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture Food and Development Agency, announced the first trials of a potato variety that has been genetically modified to be resistant to blight. This would surely be a welcome innovation to help lay some of the ghosts of the famine to rest- so why is there a vigorous activist campaign against the trials?

The potato has always had a prominent role in Irish culture and food, and traditionally Paddy’s Day- the Feast Day of St. Patrick, March 17th, is the day for getting the spuds in, and if it stops raining at all I hope to get out there with the spade myself.

Blight devastated the main food source of the Irish peasantry in the 1840s resulting in up to 750,000 deaths through disease and starvation, and the immigration of over a million. The population collapsed from over 8 million in 1841 to 6.5million just 10 years later. The events of this period changed the face of Irish society, fueled the growth of Irish nationalist movements leading to the eventual formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, and has left its legacy with the deeply felt cultural dislocation of emigration, now becoming relevant once again as Ireland’s young people leave to seek work in Australia, Canada and America in response to the current recession.

The introduction of the potato to Europe from South America from the 17th Century had a profound effect, and while the dependency of a large population on just one crop is obviously asking for trouble, there are good reasons to believe that the adoption of the potato as a staple crop sometime in the 18th Century actually contributed to population increases in Ireland and elsewhere as it allows more food to be produced on less land.

A poignant reminder of the significance of the famine and the role of the potato blight was brought home to me a few years ago when I attended a seed-saving workshop at Brown Envelope Seeds in West Cork with Tom Wagner from Washington State.

Tom had been breeding new varieties of potatoes and tomatoes for decades, and had brought with him some seeds of a variety of Lumper potato which had bred for blight tolerance, and in symbolic solidarity with the famine victims of more than 150 years earlier, precipitating the emigration of Tom’s own ancestors to the New World, we all went down to the local famine graveyard at Abbeystrewery near Skibbereen, West Cork, where Tom scattered his new seeds amongst the gravestones.

It was not until 1882 that a cure for blight was discovered- the use of copper sulphate which works as an effective fungicide, but which may require weekly applications during warm muggy weather common in Ireland during the growing season. According to Professor Trewavas, a fierce critic of organic approaches,

Organic farmers use copper sulphate to treat plant disease
but this is to be banned by the EC. Bordeaux mixture, the organic form
used, has induced liver disease in vineyard workers, caused deaths and is
probably carcinogenic. Copper sulphate kills earthworms, fish and leads to
serious copper contamination of food. Use of this chemical by the
organic community for many years indicates the dangers of assertion rather
than knowledge.

Copper sulphate was banned under organic standards in the EU in 2002, although still permitted by the Soil Association in exceptional circumstances.

In recent years plant breeders in Hungary have produced the blight resistant Sarpo Mira variety which has proved highly successful (although not necessarily the tastiest spud or most popular amongst consumers). Another approach amongst small small producers has been to grow only early varieties which mature before the blight strikes.

However, organic yields are consistently some 30-40% lower than than on conventional farms, and blight is estimated to cause $6billion in losses each year.

Genetic engineering offers another tool to tackle the fungus, one which might have significant advantages over the traditional plant breeding methods which produced the Sarpo:

IRELAND’S AGRICULTURE AND Food Development Authority, Teagasc, has announced that it is seeking permission to begin trials on genetically modified potato crops in the country later this year.

If Teagasc’s application for a licence is granted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the trials would be the first study involving GM crops grown outside a laboratory setting to take place in Ireland.

According to the Teagasc website,

In Ireland, disease pressure from fungal diseases is very high and resistant cultivars currently play a significant role in minimising the adverse effects of diseases and pests. Cultivar related input programmes are already practised in normal or conventional farming and with new decision support systems and molecular based diagnostic techniques this approach could be exploited further in future lower cost production systems. Disease resistance based upon the ‘gene-for-gene’ interaction in fungal disease (the concept that for each gene determining resistance/susceptibility in the plant, there is a corresponding gene for avirulence/virulence in the pathogen) has proved the most effective. However, disease resistance in modem cultivars is mainly monogenic, hypersensitive in character, and therefore such cultivars have a relatively short life span unless protected by increasing frequency of spraying with fungicides. This type of resistance is also often unstable, breaking down as the pathogen adapts to the change in selection pressure exerted by the introduction of a new variety. As a result, new varieties are constantly replaced due primarily to their disease resistance breakdown.

Traditional plant breeding has made a significant impact in improving resistance of many crops to important diseases. However a major limitation is the length of time required to make crosses and back-crosses, and to select the desired resistant progeny, which make it difficult to react rapidly to the evolution of new fungal races. Moreover, for many major fungal diseases these plant-breeding techniques will not provide a solution because there are simply no natural sources of resistance available to the breeder. Biotechnology research into disease resistance lags behind that for herbicide and insecticide resistance, with the first introductions expected within 3 to 7 years. The development of varieties with broadly based multigenic disease resistance (field resistance) could overcome a large part of this problem and its introduction could be helped greatly by developments in breeding and bio-technology.

So as the fungus mutates, the plant breeders need to keep ahead of the game, breeding new resistant varieties all the time- something which can take several years. GE technology can speed this up, as well as keeping yields high and retaining other characteristics of flavour and texture valued by the consumer.

This is not the first time potatoes have been subject to genetic modification- in India, “protatoes” have been successfully engineered to have extra protein.

Predictably, since Organic standards prohibit the use of GE crops, there is considerable opposition to the introduction of GE crops in any form in Ireland, which has hitherto been GMO-free. However, the potato trials pose a difficulty for the activists, since the traditional objections do not apply: the crop has nothing to do with Monsanto, potatoes are clonal crops and do not spread by pollen- so “contamination” of other crops wild plants is highly unlikely- and the particular gene in question comes, not from another plant- or animal- species, but merely from another variety of spud.

On Twitter, @scribhneoir wrote to me saying

GM takes away our freedom to choose for ourselves once the seed spreads, also massive increase in round-up use #bad

-so I explained that potatoes are propogated from the tubers, the seed does not spread, and they are not RoundupReady; she replied

The spud trials are only the beginning of growing gm crops in Ireland, round-up ready may be next, it’s about more than the spuds

This seems a poor strategy to me- if there is nothing wrong with this particular trait, then why oppose it when it could be such a boon for Irish farmers? Blight still claims some 20% of the European potato crop, even with fungicides, but the EU is regulating increasingly against fungicides; GE spuds could reduce use of synthetic sprays as well as increasing the yield with no extra land or other resources. Surely, if you are worried about the use of Roundup- which is used endemically by ordinary gardeners and on paths etc, not just on crops- why not just campaign against that? The thing with GE technology is, each application is specific- some may be more useful than others- at the end of the day, it is just a tool like any other. Apart from that, I am not aware of any move to trial RoundupReady crops in Ireland.

I also exchanged a couple of tweets with @stella_coffey who runs the website GMmoratorium, and carries the tagline This granny wants a moratorium on GM crops and food in Ireland because we don’t know enough to know they’re safe
.

Like many voices of opposition to GMOs this invokes the Precautionary Principle. The problem is, once you have taken an ideological opposition to something, nothing will satisfy you- despite absence of any evidence that GE/GMOs pose any particular health or environmental concerns, these activists are opposed to the technology on principle- no amount of trials or safety measures would make it acceptable to them.

While GMmoratorium makes much of claims that there are no independent safety studies, this appears to be quite false- see GMOPundit here.

IOFGA, the Irish Organics regulatory body, make a number of points against GMOs but give no references. They do refer to a study where

“Scottish scientists found damage to every single internal organ in rats fed blight resistant GM potatoes. There are many more such examples illustrating very serious concerns with GM food.”

In fact they are referring to a 1995 study by the Rowett Institute co-ordinated by Arpad Pusztai which lead to a well-documented controversy. Pustzai was sacked by the Rowett Institute for misrepresenting his results.

You can read the review of the study from the Royal Society here:

I found the data impossible to review in the usual sense since proper descriptions of methodology are missing but my overwhelming impressions are of extremely poor experimental design, for whatever was intended to be the outcome of the work, chaos and confusion, with hopelessly confounded issues.

Much anti-GMO activism seems to be motivated by brand-protectionism- while others feel that Organics and GMOs cvould be the “perfect marriage”.

A look at the comments left by some of those who signed the petition run by Stop GM Potato trials in Ireland may give an insight into other misguided objections, eg # 1579:

Every human being on this planet has a right to natural food, not gm which is unatural. This should be a real concern to everyone,do not meddle with nature.

There is nothing “natural” about any kind of farming really- we have been “meddling with nature” since before the plough. Concerns that Ireland would lose its “GMO virginity” also seem misplaced- rather, Ireland is likely to be left behind as the rest of the world uses this powerful technology to improve disease resistance, reduce pesticides and fungicide use, and introduce new traits to food crops that benefit everyone.

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9 Comments

  1. Tommacg

     /  March 21, 2012

    A rare thing – a skepteco post I’d almost fully agree with the gist of! Got an e-mail forwarded from a friend saying that “Growing GM crops in Ireland will destroy our natural food chain, our environment, our farmers, our food industry, our health and ultimately our freedom and security and that of future generations.” What a mixed-up load of scaremongering nonsense. As if any non-GE agricultural food chain is “natural.”

    Reply
  2. Ron

     /  March 22, 2012

    It’s largely a problem of perception.
    At the moment Ireland has a marketing advantage being able to say we are GM free.
    Just one GM crop, whether individually justified or not, and we lose that advantage for all crops.
    Also, when the general public get the idea that GM is ‘OK’, it does open the door to all other GM trials, including Roundup Ready etc. etc.
    Unfortunately the wedge that this is the thin end of is labeled ‘GM’ not ‘Ok in this instance GM’.

    Ron

    Reply
    • But what evidence is there that this is really of any benefit? And why should this dubious status of “GE free” outweigh the potential benefits? Much more likely it seems to me that Ireland will just be left behind by other countries who develop better crops more cheaply. You’re right it is only a problem of perception- the Organics standards could just be changed to allow GE, why not? (see the next post).
      I dont buy this idea that it will “open the door” etc- except perhaps it might open the door to some rational thought which would be very welcome!! Each GE trait needs to be assessed on its own merits, just as each crop bred through traditional means or through mutagenesis should be assessed on their own merits- GE is just a technique, that’s all. It is silly to campaign on such an arbitrary distinction- and patronizing to the “public” to think of them in the way you appear to do.

      Reply
  3. defek

     /  March 22, 2012

    a bit disingenuous bringing up the famine…which was principally caused by uneven distribution of wealth, greedy middlemen and colonial abuse… like most famines in the history of mankind, unavailability of food is almost never the key issue.. (always ask the question… if you had had the money, could you have got it, and the answer is invariably yes…) Ireland was exporting other crops at the time of the famine.. In 1844 there was a net export of grain of 294000 tons and 485000 in 1845.
    on the one hand you argue against use of idealogically based arguments and on the other you present a spurious emotive one…
    ideology is not only inevitable but desirable when it comes to making decisions around scientific issues. a basic understanding of philosophy of science would illustrate that even the most empirical of scientific investigations are far from watertight in either methodologically, principally or philosophically….
    and no, i’m not saying that random hearsay or collective superstition is a better approach…obviously i would rather i was operated on by someone who had studied medicine in an ordered fashion than someone who was basing their approach on the arrayed guts of a sacrificed hedgehog….
    oldschool science, of which you seem to be a devotee, is invariably based on an unrealistic premise, that all relevant causal factors can be accounted for and controlled… the real world is not like that, the unknown unknowns greatly outweigh the the known unknowns… take a simple example… you are taking one synthesized chemical drug (ie, not a compound drug) which affects your system in a particular way causing a known outcome…(i have a headache, i take paracetamol, my headache goes.)…perfect…however, long term use of paracetamol caused an array of side effects, so i take another drug to deal with one of those…you can see where this is going…
    by the time people are on 3 medications, there is no reliable scientific way of beginning to predict outcomes….and this is a very simple example of a laboratory based product and an organism (in this case human).
    nature is not a laboratory, so whilst you can prove something scientifically by testing specific causal relationships, you are limited by those that you choose to test……and those decisions that are made to establish which particular causal relationships you choose to test are invariably made at best, on the basis of ignorance (of the things you couldn’t possibly have known were in some way involved) and at worst, from an egotistical desire to prove your right, ideology and/or the profit motive.
    essentially science is a collection of assertions that stand until they are disproven.. the initial premise is often based on belief, yes, belief that there is an underlying causal relationship… and over time, many, many have been disproven…
    the religion of science is as dangerous as ignorance.
    when looking at a country that is one of the few countries in the world with the potential for biosecurity, the question you should ask yourself is, does the potential gain outweigh the risk… this is not a question that can solely answered by science. the precautionary principle is one to be ignored at ones peril…

    Reply
  4. Tommacg

     /  March 22, 2012

    @Ron – “At the moment Ireland has a marketing advantage being able to say we are GM free.”
    These anti-GE arguments relating to Ireland’s food exports, which are quite frequently made, really amaze me. While this may not apply to you, I find it strange that anti-GE campaigners who, from my experience, are usually advocates of small-scale, self-sufficient organic agriculture suddenly care a whole lot about how much beef we can send abroad and how successful huge trans-national corporations like Kerry Group will be in reaping massive profits for their shareholders.

    @defek – “when looking at a country that is one of the few countries in the world with the potential for biosecurity”
    That concept of biosecurity is one which could be unpacked a bit more perhaps. What does it even mean? So some terrible killer seed is produced in the UK or mainland Europe. Do you really think things can’t spread across the Irish sea? Besides, the only substantive difference between GE and conventional plant breeding is that one of them is strictly regulated and controlled (and no, it’s not conventional breeding).

    Ireland’s landscape is a hollow relic of what it used to be. Farming and industry have deforested the whole island, wiping out many, many species in just a few hundred years. Where is the biosecurity in that? As Stewart Brand said in Whole Earth Discipline (p.134), “To an ecologist, or to a Gaian for that matter, agriculture is one vast catastrophe. The less of it, the better…Opponents of genetic engineering are right to suspect GE crops of being ecologically harmful, because all crops are ecologically harmful.”

    Reply
  5. Conor

     /  June 25, 2012

    I notice there is an interesting article on GE foods published by Davy stockbrokers today. Check it out http://www.davy.ie/content/email/wmc20120625.pdf.
    Conor

    Reply
    • Interesting, thanks. I note they quote the Union of Concerned Scientists who I believe have a clear ideological opposition to GE crops. The report only discusses yields, which is certainly not the only or even the most significant claim made by GE proponents- reduction in pesticide use is probably more important (in Bt corn) (or replacement of more toxic herbicides with the much more benign Roundup in the case of Roundup-ready crops). Where GE can really increase yields is in disease-resistance or drought/flood-resistance. Blight costs up to 20% of the potato crop in Europe so blight-resistant varieties could increase the yield that much in consequence.

      Reply
      • Conor

         /  June 27, 2012

        It is interesting to note a corporate machine like Davy’s stockbrokers could get such basic analysis so wrong. I guess it just goes to show the level of knowledge you need to have on this subject to be able to tell who was what agenda.
        No wonder there is such confusion out there.

        Reply
  6. Jim

     /  October 27, 2012

    One should not apply the Precautionary Principle unless it is first certain that to do so will cause no harm.

    Reply

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