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Potato disease, contentious genetic cure still haunt, divide Ireland

| Saturday, March 16, 2013, 9:39 p.m.
The Washington Post
Irish potato farmer David Rodgers, surveying a 25-acre field north of Dublin, is cautious about planting genetically modified potatoes: 'You can't decide to do it without finding out if the consumer would want to buy it. Europe is so against GM.'

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.

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