Recently the Irish agricultural research advisory organisation Teagasc applied for a licence to carry out field studies using Genetically Modified (GM) potatoes resistant to potato blight. This has caused many to ask what GM potatoes can do for them and if they can potentially be harmful to our health?
Ireland has had a long history surrounding blight, amounting in sporadic famines, one of the biggest occurring from 1845-1852. More than one million people died and an additional two million left Ireland. However, this disease is very much still around us, harming over 20 per cent of the 320-million-tonne potato population.
Blight, or “late blight” is caused by Phytophthora infestans, a fungus-like micro-organism called an oomycete. This causes the potatoes leaves to turn black and withered. Additionally the potato itself turns into a blackish, slimy rotten mass. Traditional plant breeding has gradually lost its effectiveness and caused blight to yet again become growing problem. As a result of this an over-necessary amount of fungicides are being used as a precaution. Potatoes are sprayed weekly with these toxic chemicals to prevent infection. Copper fungicides used by organic farmers are still proving to be a problem as they are incredibly poisonous to animals and humans. Another problem with this is that these copper resistant fungicides cause copper-resistant organisms to thrive; most of these organisms are also resistant to antibiotics, which poses further problems.
Trials are likely to begin shortly in Ireland with similar trials having already started in the UK. Germany’s BASF (a world leading chemical company) have gone so far to seek approval from the European Commission for their new blight resistant potato named “Fortuna”. They have spent years working alongside scientists at the Sainsbury Laboratory and Wageningen University. If “Fortuna” was to be approved it could grow and be sold across Europe by 2014 or 2015.
The question that many of us are asking is: are these additional genes or proteins harmful? The additional genes are simply bits of DNA and the proteins they code for are just different variations of the resistance protein the potato has already made. A recent EU report, which comments on a 25 year long research into the biosafety of GMOs, concluded that GM methods are no more prone to problems than traditional methods. The underlying conclusion of all studies is that GM foods are better for the environment, the land and us. So why would we turn it down, even after the mounds of scientific evidence and proof?