Potato disease, contentious genetic cure still haunt, divide Ireland
By The Washington Post
Published: Saturday, March 16, 2013, 9:39 p.m.
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 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 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.
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 around the country.
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 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.
After the crop failures of 1845 and 1846, more than a million died of starvation and disease, and as many as two million fled to Britain and North America and other lands. Today, the combined population of the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland is just three quarters of the pre-famine numbers on the Emerald Isle.
Yet the potato remains an iconic vegetable here, in many homes arriving nightly — boiled, mashed or fried.
St. Patrick's Day marks the traditional start of the new potato planting season. Some growers have put seed spuds in their fields. David Rodgers and his three brothers will plant a total of 250 acres near Dublin next month. He knows he will battle the blight, if the season is cool, humid and wet.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Teen’s death revives Turkish street demonstrations
- Western-backed Libyan PM removed
- Teen’s death sparks protests across Turkey
- Ukraine control of bases erodes
- Guilty verdicts for 3 CIA agents upheld in Italy
- Syrian civil war affects kids the most, U.N. says
- Vanished jet’s wild turn adds to mystery
- Europe prepares to punish Moscow
- In North Korea, voting’s really a breeze: You must vote and you get 1 candidate
- Investigators chase ‘every angle’ in missing Malaysian jet
- Malaysian military says missing jet changed course