The potato is intimately tied to the history and culture of Ireland and now the humble spud is again a focus of interest on the Emerald Isle.
Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has agreed to allow Teagasc – the Irish food development authority -- to conduct a field trial with a genetically modified (GM) potato crop over the next four years.
GM potatoes have been designed to resist blight, a disease that renders the crop useless and which also caused the devastating Great Famine in the 1840s and killed at least 1-million people.
The European Union has already begun similar GM trials with potato plants in the UK, Netherlands and Belgium.
BBC reported that in recent years new strains of blight have afflicted Ireland’s potato crop, resulting in annual expenditures of €15 million to kill the fungus with chemicals. For cash-strapped Ireland, such outlays are becoming prohibitive.
John Spink, the head of crop research at Teagasc, told BBC: "We need to do this trial in Ireland because our environment is different from other parts of the EU. It's not about commercializing GM potatoes. We're looking at impacts on the environment and on the pathogen itself."
However, not everyone is happy with the idea of the Irish raising GM potatoes.
The Organic Trust Ltd. of Dublin warned that the approval to run trials of GM plants carries "grave ramifications for Irish food and farming.”
“Irish food exports trade on our reputation as a clean, green food island; an image not easily squared with the cultivation of GM crops,” said Gavin Lynch, the Trust’s PR & Development Officer.
“Organic Trust… calls on Teagasc not to act on the approval granted but to adhere to the wishes of the vast majority of Irish citizens not to pollute our precious land. Not one single solitary benefit will accrue to Ireland as a result of this trial - so why it is going ahead?”
Lynch cited data that suggests GM food enjoys less than 25 percent acceptance among European citizens, while more than 70 percent believe GM food to be inherently unnatural.
“There is no grey area between being a GM-free country and not,” he added.
“Ireland cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hound when it comes to our reputation as a food exporter. Either we value and protect our reputation as a clean, green food island and continue to exploit high value export markets, or we can court the pet projects of industrial agriculture and exit the food business in favor of the low value commodity business.”
But Teagasc counters that late blight disease presents a grave threat to Ireland’s potato crop.
“New more aggressive strains of the pathogen have arrived in Ireland over the last 4 years,” the group stated.
“Farmers have had to adapt by increasing the amount of fungicide applied but this is not sustainable; especially in light of new EU laws designed to reduce the amount of chemicals that are applied on our crops. The urgent need for the research is highlighted by the current conditions being faced by farmers, who are struggling to control blight disease in the 2012 potato crop.”
According to the Irish Food Board, Irish consumers spend about €162 million on potatoes annually, making it by far the most popular vegetable in the country – tomatoes came in at a distant second at €74 million.
Potatoes are eaten in 95 percent of Irish households, making it the island’s pre-eminent staple.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.