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
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.