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.