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Teagasc Frequently Asked Questions

Posted at October 19, 2012 | By : | Categories : Uncategorized | 0 Comment

As the potato cv. Desiree will be given the DNA of a wild potato variety – why can this not be done by conventional breeding methods?

It can but there are two problems. First of all it takes considerably longer. It took potato breeders 49 years to develop current varieties containing genes from wild potato species. Fortunately, significant advances have been made in potato breeding to the point where this could theoretically be reduced to 17 years. Secondly, and the biggest problem is what we call ‘linkage drag’, which occurs when you try and breed in new traits from wild potato species. Linkage drag means that while you get for example improved disease resistance in your new variety its overall agronomic performance for other traits can be reduced

What is the herbicide that you will be using to kill the remnants of the field trials?

It will be generic glyphosate, which is readily available in garden centres and hardware shops and used in conventional tillage crops all over the country.

40m sounds like a very low buffer zone to protect the Irish non-GM crops.

On the contrary, it is almost double what we have observed as being necessary in field studies at Oak Park. Over 3 successive years (2008 – 2010), the average pollen dispersion for cv. Desiree was 10m. In a separate study in 2006, which was designed to maximise pollen transfer in a ‘worst case scenario’, we observed berry formation (indicating pollen spread) at 21m. Yet, only 2.8% of the berries formed contained viable seed. However, taking this single result into account we have suggested 40m as a minimum distance. Based on the cropping rotations at Oak Park, it is likely that the distance will exceed 100m.

With most of the EU consumers not wanting GM on their tables, and farmers not wanting to grow it, why is it so important to waste taxpayers’ money on this?

We are focused on the Irish consumer and the Irish tillage sector. We have consistently been asked through our discussion groups, farmer meetings, public lectures etc… to produce Irish-specific information on the environmental impacts, so that people can make an informed choice. For over 10 years now we have witnessed the intractable GM debate between the anti- and pro-GM sides. There is a clear need for scientifically sound, Irish-specific information on this matter and that is what we propose to deliver.

Separately, it is important to note that the potato cultivar that we have sought a license to study is a ‘cisgenic’ line. Cisgenic refers to the transfer of genes within a genus (e.g. from wild potato to commercial potato), but because of the method used to transfer the genes they are still covered by GM legislation. This contrasts with the traditional understanding of GM, which is transgenic. In this case, genes can be taken from one genus and transferred into any other genus (e.g. from a fish to a plant). Significantly, in the most recent survey of European consumers it was reported that while only 36% of Irish people surveyed would accept a transgenic variety, 61% would accept a cisgenic variety.

Late blight resistant potatoes are around already, through conventional breeding methods, without the need for bacterial infection (GM). There seems little point to add new varieties.

Quite the opposite. The potato sector faces significant challenges in the next 10 years. Increased EU legislation will curtail the amount and type of crop protection products that farmers can use. As conventional potatoes get sprayed up to 15 times per growing season to preserve the crop, this will be a major issue for Irish potato growers. In addition, we have monitored Irish blight populations for over 30 years and in the last 4 years we have recorded the emergence of highly aggressive strains of blight disease that are also exhibiting levels of fungicide resistance. There are no varieties available to commercial farmers with complete resistant to late blight. Material is available with some resistance to late blight which are used by organic growers, but they too can require additional control measures to keep blight out.

There is surely enough evidence out there that Ireland would benefit from a GM-free status, for its own food supply, and for the export market. This trial could reduce our foreign status significantly, when many countries on the European Mainland are reducing, and even banning, GM crops. We will lose our foothold, and our exports, at a very critical time in our economic history.
Ireland is not GM free and the proposed work will not be the first use of GM in the country. GM sugar beet was grown in field experiments some 13 years ago and we import almost 1 million tonnes of GM animal feed every year to support our food export industry. The proposed environmental study will therefore not compromise our export market.

The proposed study is at odds with Ireland’s green image and is at odds with initiatives by other agencies such as Bord Bia
It would be irresponsible of Teagasc to contemplate such a scenario as the organisation’s role is to underpin the Irish agri-food industry and no other agency has done more to achieve this. Each year Teagasc invests millions in agri-environmental research projects, which support the development of environmentally conscious farming methods and minimise the impact of farming on our water and soils. The proposed study is about quantifying the impact of a blight resistant potato on levels of soil biodiversity. By acting in this manner Teagasc is addressing the GM question in a responsible and contained manner that will not impact on existing crop systems and will not compromise Ireland’s world leading food export market.

Heritage seeds are important for genetic diversity. Creating clones of crops reduces this genetic diversity, and therefore evolution of the crop to cope with Irish conditions will not happen.

Genetic diversity is important as a source of useful genes in breeding programmes, but all varieties of potato are clonal, as they are multiplied from tubers rather than sexual reproduction, the variety we are proposing to test is no different to this. However this can be seen as a benefit because, as it is clonal, its potential to spread outside the confines of the managed environment of a field is restricted. Useful genes from heritage varieties (or wild relatives) can be used to produce new improved varieties of potatoes either through conventional breeding or more rapidly by developing cisgenic lines.

What scientific background do the scientists carrying out this trial hold? Have they worked with other agri-tech industries, and will one of the main industries be given the contract if the field trial ‘succeeds’?

The scientists involved in this study are qualified crop scientists with no affiliation to any industry. Since the GM research programme was started at Oak Park in 2002, Teagasc have not received, nor sought, any funding from either side in relation to the GM debate. The variety being tested is not from a biotech company but from publically funded research in Europe. There will be no ‘contract’ at the end of the study. The objective of this work is to quantify the environmental impact of a blight resistant potato compared to a conventional potato system and make that information publicly available so as to address the current knowledge deficit that exists for Irish-specific crops.

In the USA, organic standards have been weakened due to the contamination by GM pollen (which now allow up to 2% GM in their crops). Although I understand this will not happen with GM potatoes under this trial, if they do get to the market, these potatoes will go to seed, and they will contaminate heritage varieties, so our organic standards will be compromised.

There is no commercial interest in this project and Teagasc is not in the business of developing GM crops for commercialisation. In regards to the coexistence of GM and non-GM potato systems, we have researched this with the goal of designing crop strategies to preserve the genetic integrity of non-GM potato crops. Coexistence is possible for potato due to the biology of the crop but there must be adequate regulatory measures put in place by the Irish competent authorities to ensure that it is maintained. As outlined above potato varieties are preserved through the clonal propagation of tubers, as soon as a potato variety sets true seed the resulting plants are no longer the variety you started with, whether they cross with a GM or another conventional variety. The use of GM varieties would not therefore alter the risk of loosing heritage varieties compared to what we have lived with since potatoes varieties were first bred by man.

What are the details of the genetic constructs used to generate the GM potato?

This information has been included in the Teagasc submission to the EPA and is available at www.epa.ie.

Why is Teagasc spending taxpayer’s money on this research?
This project is funded through the European Framework 7 programme and the Irish study is part of a larger EU project. Entitled ‘AMIGA’ (Assessing and Monitoring the Impacts of Genetically modified plants on Agro-ecosystems), the project has 22 partners from Research Centres, Universities, State Agencies and SMEs across 15 EU countries. The main objectives of AMIGA are to:

• Identify suitable bio-indicators that permit a better integration of GM field experimentation across specific agricultural ecosystems in the EU,
• Deliver an improvement of knowledge on potential long-term impacts of specific GM crops,

It is important to note that the alternative to public-funded research is to wait for privately funded programmes to deliver the research assessments. While that work may be scientifically sound, it cannot claim to be impartial and as such would not contribute constructively to the public’s desire for unbiased information on this matter.

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