CARLOW, Ireland —
Ewen Mullins is the face of modern Ireland: Young, cosmopolitan, highly educated, he is a plant scientist whose work on a genetically modified potato inherently 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 lab and greenhouse in a research farm outside Carlow, 42-year-old Mullins deals daily with the potato blight, a pernicious rot caused by a fungus that still thrives in Ireland’s wet, cold climate.
Mullins and his team have spent the winter cloning new potato stock in a locked temperature control room and, nearby, 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, said Mullins. 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 Dublin based 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 it’s 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 popular potato
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 now has more potato fields than developed countries, according to Dutch scientists at the forefront of the effort.
Today the amount of Irish farmland devoted to the potato pales in comparison to pasture land and cereal production. And yet the potato remains an iconic vegetable here, in many homes arriving nightly on the dinner table in a big steaming bowl — boiled, floury and in their skins.
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 says 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.”
St. Patrick’s Day marks the traditional start of the new potato planting season; some growers have already put seed spuds in their fields.
Without the sprays, the potato fields of Ireland would echo the destruction that began in 1845.
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.
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 who want to introduce them, with EU 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.