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 only 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 controlled 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, Mullins said. 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 genetically modified potato say its 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.
Today the amount of Irish farmland devoted to the potato pales in comparison with 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,” he said. Pressed some more, Rodgers 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.”
While St. Patrick’s Day marks the traditional start of the new potato planting season, some growers have already put seed spuds in their fields. Rodgers and his three brothers will plant a total of 250 acres in County Dublin next month. He knows he will do battle with the blight, especially if the season again is cool, humid and wet, conditions that favor the spread of spores. Continue reading
More than five years since the deadly white-nose fungus was first detected in a New York cave where bats hibernate, up to 6.7 million of the animals are estimated to have died in 16 states and Canada, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday.
The estimate, drawn from surveys by wildlife officials mostly in Northeastern states where the disease thrives, confirmed the worst fears of biologists who have been counting dead bats covered in the powdery fungus in mines and caves every winter and worrying whether the little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat and the tri-colored bat will survive.
“We’re watching a potential extinction event on the order of what we experienced with bison and passenger pigeons for this group of mammals,” said Mylea Bayless, conservation programs manager for Bat Conservation International in Austin.
“The difference is we may be seeing the regional extinction of multiple species,” Bayless said. “Unlike some of the extinction events or population depletion events we’ve seen in the past, we’re looking at a whole group of animals here, not just one species. We don’t know what that means, but it could be catastrophic.”
Bats are a top nocturnal predator, picking off night-flying insects that feed on agricultural crops and forests. Continue reading
NEW YORK — Northeastern states are facing a jack-o’-lantern shortage this Halloween after Hurricane Irene destroyed hundreds of pumpkin patches across the region, farmers say.
Wholesale prices have doubled in some places as farmers nurse their surviving pumpkin plants toward a late harvest. Some farmers are trying to buy pumpkins from other regions to cover orders.
Many area farms have fared well through the wet weather while some Northeastern states face a pumpkin shortage.
“I think there’s going to be an extreme shortage of pumpkins this year,” said Darcy Pray, owner of Pray’s Family Farms in Keeseville, in upstate New York. “I’ve tried buying from people down in the Pennsylvania area, I’ve tried locally here and I’ve tried reaching across the border to some farmers over in the Quebec area. There’s just none around.”
Hurricane Irene raked the Northeast in late August, bringing torrents of rain that overflowed rivers and flooded fields along the East Coast and into southern Canada. Pray saw his entire crop, about 15,000 to 20,000 pumpkins, washed into Lake Champlain.
But pumpkin farmers had been having a difficult year even before the storm. Heavy rains this spring meant many farms had to postpone planting for two or three weeks, setting back the fall harvest, said Jim Murray, owner of the Applejacks Orchard in Peru, N.Y.
A late harvest can be fatal to business because pumpkin sales plummet after Halloween on Oct. 31. Wholesalers need to get pumpkins on their way to stores by mid-September.
Another spate of rain about two weeks before Irene caused outbreaks of the phytophthora fungus —a type of water mold — in many fields, said Jim Stakey, owner of Stakey’s Pumpkin Farm in Aquebogue, on New York’s Long Island. Continue reading
The first infestation of the coffee berry borer in the Kau district of the Big Island has been detected at a farm in Pahala, state agricultural officials announced today.
Infestations of the beetle, which threaten Hawaii’s $27 million coffee-growing industry, have been concentrated in West Hawaii.
The coffee berry borer, a small beetle native to Central Africa, bores into coffee beans and lays its eggs, its larvae feeding inside the bean.
State officials said they’re still assessing the extent of the infestation in Pahala and that farmers in the region are asked to inspect their fields and report any suspected coffee berry borers.
The state in February approved the use of the fungus Beauveria bassiana to control the spread of the coffee berry borer.
The Hawaii Department of Agriculture is proposing to make it easier to import a fungus used to control a type of beetle that is a major threat to Kona’s coffee bean farms.
The Department of Agriculture said in a news release yesterday the proposal seeks to remove the fungus from the list of restricted microorganisms.
Agriculture officials in February approved using pesticides that contain the fungus only with a permit. The department is proposing to remove the permit requirement but the pesticide would still need to be registered with the state.
The fungus is contained in pesticides Kona coffee farms use to control an infestation of small beetles known as Coffee Berry Borers. The beetle has destroyed 60 to 70 percent of coffee crops at some farms.