CARLOW, Ireland — Ewen Mullins is the face of modern Ireland: Cosmopolitan and highly educated, he is a plant scientist whose work on a genetically modified potato looks to the future. But Mullins also must think back to one of Ireland’s darkest chapters, the Great Famine of the 1840s.
“It’s always there,” he said. “It’s not something we forget or something we should be allowed to forget.”
From his laboratory and greenhouse in a research farm outside Carlow, Mullins, 42, deals daily with a disease that afflicts his native land and haunts it: the potato blight, a pernicious rot caused by a fungus that still thrives in Ireland’s wet, cold climate.
The disease has become even more damaging in the past five years with the arrival of new, aggressive strains. Unchecked, blight can destroy crops in days.
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Mullins and his team spent the winter cloning new potato stock in a locked, temperature-controlled room and, nearby, in a secured greenhouse bay where the plant is isolated and any waste must be sterilized in a steamer.
This spring, they will start a test by setting out more than 2,000 transplants in a field at the Irish agricultural research service’s farm.
“There’s a lot of public interest” in his work, Mullins said. Not all of it is friendly. Genetic engineering remains controversial in Europe and the research in Ireland has drawn a campaign against it.
The field trials in Carlow are harming Ireland’s reputation for local, organic and artisanal food, said Kaethe Burt-O’Dea, a Dublin based local-food activist. “People feel that once you let GM (genetic modification) in, there’s really no turning back,” she said.
But proponents of the genetically modified potato say its eventual use could prevent harmful and expensive applications of pesticides and could bolster potato yields, which are ruined by the blight in poorer countries today.
The potato is the third-most-consumed crop on the planet after wheat and rice, and has become increasingly important in the developing world, which has more potato fields than developed countries, according to Dutch scientists.
Today the amount of Irish farmland devoted to the potato pales in comparison to pasture land and cereal production. Yet the potato remains an iconic food here, in many homes arriving nightly on the dinner table.
Pesticide in heavy use
Like other potato farmers, David Rodgers is wary of a biologically engineered superpotato.
“We are fighting the blight, we are growing the potato.” Pressed some more, he said everything depends on consumer acceptance. “You can’t decide to do it without finding out if the consumer would want to buy it. Europe is so against GM.”
Rodgers and his three brothers will plant a total of 250 acres in County Dublin next month. He knows he will do battle with the blight, especially if the season again is cool, humid and wet, conditions that favor the spread of spores.
From the end of May until harvest, farmers like Rodgers spray fungicides every seven to 14 days, depending on the weather.
The new, more aggressive blight immediately attacks the stems instead of the leaves, he said. “Anybody who has tried growing potatoes in their garden realizes it’s not so easy,” said Rodgers, scanning a 25-acre field containing last year’s crop.
Without the sprays, the potato fields of Ireland would echo the destruction that began in 1845, when the blight took hold in Flanders, Belgium, and moved like wildfire to the British Isles.
More than 1 million in Ireland died of starvation and disease, and an additional 2 million or so fled to other lands.
No one suggests the genetically modified potato stands between Ireland and another famine, but the research carries a special poignancy in Ireland.
“There is no country that has suffered the ravages of blight more so than our country,” said Thomas Carpenter, a potato farmer in County Meath. “Our climatic conditions are very conducive to potato blight. It’s the single biggest threat to any potato farmer’s livelihood.”
The potato Mullins is testing is one of three varieties created seven years ago by scientists at the University of Wageningen using donor genes from about six species of wild potato in Mexico and Argentina. Once the potatoes are successfully tested, the Dutch university will grant licenses to companies that want to introduce them, with European Union approval, but on a nonexclusive basis, to avoid monopoly control, said Anton Haverkort, project leader. In addition, the potatoes will be available free in developing countries with a humanitarian need.
In certain countries, the blight can still threaten a society’s food security, Haverkort said. Belarus, Rwanda and parts of India and Uganda rely heavily on the potato as a staple, he said, and the disease is halving yields because poorer countries can’t afford the spraying regimen used in nations such as Ireland and the United States.
For Mullins, the trial began modestly last summer with a preliminary assessment of 24 plants, but the power of the genetically engineered potato was soon evident. In one of the worst years in memory for blight, he saw untreated conventional potato plants quickly turn black and collapse. The modified version, known officially as A15-031, shrugged off the pathogen.
Mullins is examining whether the modified version harms beneficial microbial soil life, and if the ever more virulent blight, caused by a fungal-like organism known as Phytophthora infestans, will evolve to defeat it.
Some of the traditional arguments against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs — that the crops will contaminate non-GMO plants and that the biotechnology will be controlled by a powerful corporation — appear not to apply to A15-031, given Wageningen’s assurances. And unlike corn, potato pollen does not travel far and even if it did, wouldn’t alter the earthbound tubers that are eaten or used to grow the next season’s crops.
For Mullins, a vital aspect of the project is that the potato gets its protective gene from a closely related plant, not a distant plant genus or an animal. This makes it, in genetic parlance, “cisgenic” instead of the more sinister “transgenic.”
He notes that in the 2010 poll for the European Commission, cisgenic apples received 55 percent support against 33 percent for transgenic. “The public can delineate,” he said.
Most of the 27 EU member states are free of GMOs and several have banned them.
“You have to look at history to move forward,” Mullins said, “and the problem hasn’t gone away, it’s getting worse. Whether GM is the answer or not we don’t know but, sure, at least let us look at it.”