CARLOW, IRELAND – Ewen Mullins is the face of modern Ireland. Young, 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, 42-year-old Mullins deals daily with a disease that not just afflicts his native land, but 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, highly aggressive strains. Unchecked, blight can destroy entire crops in just days.
Mullins and his team have spent the winter cloning new potato stock in a locked temperature-controlled room and a secured greenhouse bay where the plant is isolated and any waste must be sterilized in a steamer. In the spring, they will start the test by setting out more than 2,000 transplants in a fenced field at the Irish agricultural research service’s farm.
There’s a lot of public interest in his work. Not all of it is friendly. Genetic engineering remains highly controversial in Europe, and the research in Ireland has spawned 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 local-food activist.
“People feel that once you let GM in, there’s really no turning back,” she said.
But proponents of the GM potato say its eventual use could prevent harmful and expensive applications of pesticides and bolster potato yields, which are decimated by the blight in poorer countries today.
The potato is the most consumed crop on the planet after wheat and rice, and has become increasingly important in the developing world, which now has more potato fields than developed countries.
Today the amount of Irish farmland devoted to the potato pales in comparison to pastureland and cereal production. And yet potatoes remain an iconic vegetable here, in many homes arriving nightly on the dinner table in a big steaming bowl — boiled, floury and in their skins.
While St. Patrick’s Day marks the traditional start of the new potato planting season, some growers have already put seed spuds in their fields. From the end of May until harvest, farmers spray fungicides every seven to 14 days, depending on the weather. The new, more aggressive blight immediately attacks the stems instead of the leaves.
Without the sprays, the potato fields of Ireland would echo the destruction that began in 1845, when the blight took hold in Flanders and moved like wildfire to the British Isles. In Ireland, where absentee landlords and a gentry descended from British settlers farmed most of the land for income, the peasantry relied on the potato as its staple.
After the crop failures of 1845 and 1846 brought starvation, British relief efforts were inadequate or inept and aimed more at reform “than with saving lives,” writes John Kelly in a new account of the famine, “The Graves are Walking.” In some instances, survivors stashed bodies behind walls “for retrieval later, when the family came into coffin money.”
More than 1 million died of starvation and disease, and as many as 2 million fled to Britain and North America.
Today, the combined population of the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland is still just three-quarters of the prefamine population of Ireland.
No one suggests the GM potato stands between Ireland and another famine — the whole economic, political and agricultural universe has changed — but the research carries a special poignancy here. “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.”
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 half a dozen 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, but on a nonexclusive basis to avoid monopoly control, said project leader Anton Haverkort. In addition, the potatoes will be available for free in developing countries with a humanitarian need.
In certain countries today, the blight can still threaten a society’s food security, said Haverkort. 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 regime used in nations such as Ireland and the United States.
For Mullins, the trial began modestly last summer with a preliminary assessment of just 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 GM version, known officially as A15-031, shrugged off the pathogen.
Mullins is examining if the GM version harms beneficial microbial soil life, and if the ever more virulent blight, caused by a fungus-like organism known as Phytophthora infestans, will evolve to defeat it.
Some of the traditional arguments against 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 tubers that are 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 even 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,” said Mullins, who works for the Irish Agricultural and Food Development Authority, known here by its Gaelic name, Teagasc (pronounced chogg-usc).
Most of the 27 European Union states are free of GMOs, and several have banned them. Europeans oppose GM food by a margin of 3 to 1. And Europeans must be told if food contains as little as 1 percent from GMOs.
GM opponents say they can achieve the same results with traditional breeding.
In response to Mullins’ trial, Burt-O’Dae formed her own organization — SPUDS — to attempt to prove the GM potato unnecessary. The group last year distributed varieties bred for natural blight resistance to 300 gardeners and organic farmers. Those who reported back — about a quarter — reported “90 percent” natural resistance to blight, she said.
She distributed varieties developed at the Sarvari Research Trust, a company established in 2002 in North Wales by a plant scientist named David Shaw. He has been evaluating naturally blight resistant seedlings developed in Soviet-era Hungary and has so far introduced six commercial varieties.
But none of those varieties seem to interest the large-scale potato growers in the farmland north and west of Dublin, where the norm is to grow varieties such as Rooster and Kerr’s Pink, whose flavor and texture is more favored by the Irish than waxier and moister varieties grown in England. “Irish palates like dry potatoes,” Mullins said.