Northern Ireland

Irish plan to trial GM potatoes

Potatoes
Image caption There are plans to start outdoor trials of genetically modified potatoes in Ireland

BBC NI Environment Correspondent Mike McKimm looks at a proposal to start outdoor trials of genetically modified potatoes in Ireland.

Teagasc, the Irish State Agriculture and Food Development Agency, has asked the Irish Environmental Protection Agency for permission to start outdoor trials of genetically modified (GM) potatoes.

The plants have been made blight resistant.

The request to move a GM experiment out-of-doors to test its fungal resistance could also move agriculture, north and south of the border, in a new direction.

And it is not a direction every farmer, consumer or environmentalist would welcome.

A previous attempt to grow GM sugar beet in the open ended with the plants being destroyed by protesters in County Wexford.

It is not absolutely clear just how GM-free the whole island of Ireland has been.

There were claims of a GM experiment with potatoes in Northern Ireland, albeit behind very firmly closed doors before the UK signed up for the EU directive on the subject.

And in a recent consultation document on the subject the preamble stated that there had been little GM activity in Northern Ireland.

Noticeably it didn't claim that there had been none. But destroyed sugar beet apart, it seems that no GM crops have ever been grown in the open in Ireland.

Depending on who you listen to, the potential problems that could be caused by GM crops are various.

The biggest fear is that of cross-contamination caused by cross-pollination between "normal" crops and GM crops.

EU directives set out the need for minimum distances between GM crops and other plants.

But the sceptics argue that a bee can fly for miles so distance is no protection.

Once a GM crop becomes cross-fertilised with a native species the genie is out of the bottle for ever say the critics.

Teagasc say that the GM potatoes would not be grown near any other crop and that the potatoes wouldn't enter any food chains.

GM crop experimentation can have unseen consequences. In the USA plans to make weed spraying easier by breeding GM crops that were resistant to weed killer went wrong.

Pregnant

A major corporation had been developing a GM plant that would not be harmed by the weed killer.

But instead the weeds became resistant to the weed killer. The GM crops were effectively a waste of money as a new weed killer was needed to solve the problem - one the GM crops would not be tolerant of.

Teagasc say the biotechnology industry is not funding their proposed trial.

Perhaps the biggest threat from GM crops is to Ireland's (north and south) reputation as a green and natural environment.

It is a bit like being non-nuclear (albeit that both parts of Ireland import nuclear-generated electricity from Scotland and Wales). It is a great marketing credential.

But grow just one GM crop in the open and the reputation is gone.

It is difficult being almost GM free - a bit like being just a little bit pregnant.

Óisín Coghlan, Director of Friends of the Earth in Ireland said: "It undermines the opportunity to sell Irish produce as green and GM free."

The GM supporters will point out the value of crops that do not need sprayed to prevent blight or infection.

They will highlight the provision of a bigger yield without the need for more fertiliser or water.

All very important when protecting habitats or trying to make farming a profitable business.

Birds

If GM trials were permitted across the border in the south of Ireland, it would be difficult to continue with the argument to keep the north GM-free.

Bees cross the border on a daily basis as do birds.

Migratory animals can transport pollen hundreds of miles, or so the anti-GM lobby groups will argue. And northern farmers would watch with envy if GM crops in the south were an economic success.

The GM argument is the same no matter what part of the world you visit. But few island nations like Ireland are still GM free.

And that is the real dilemma. Is the marketing reputation worth more than the obvious fiscal advantages?

The Environmental Protection Agency in the south have until May to make up their minds. And it is not going to be an easy choice, especially in the current financial situation.