For Mullins, a vital aspect of the project is that the potato gets its protective gene from a closely related plant, not a distant plant genus or even an animal. This makes it, in genetic parlance, “cisgenic” instead of the more sinister “transgenic.”
He notes that in the 2010 poll for the European Commission, cisgenic apples received 55 percent support against 33 percent for transgenic. “The public can delineate,” said Mullins, who works for the Irish Agricultural and Food Development Authority, known here by its Gaelic name, Teagasc (pronounced ch-ogg-usc).
Most of the 27 European Union member states are free of GMOs and several have banned them. Europeans oppose GM food by 3 to 1, according to the 2010 poll. And unlike consumers in the United States, Europeans must be told if food they are buying contains as little as 1 percent from GMOs.
GM opponents say they can achieve the same results with traditional breeding.
In response to Mullins’s trial, Burt-O’Dea 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. Those who reported back — about a quarter — reported “90 percent” natural resistance to blight, she said.
She distributed varieties developed at the Sarvari Research Trust, a company established in 2002 in North Wales by a plant scientist named David Shaw. He has been evaluating naturally blight resistant seedlings developed in Soviet-era Hungary and has so far introduced six commercial varieties. “We are a very small company trying hard to make the potato industry more sustainable,” Shaw said. “We struggle to survive.”
But none of those varieties seem to interest the large-scale potato growers in the farmland north and west of Dublin, where the norm is to grow varieties such as Rooster and Kerr’s Pink, whose flavor and texture is more favored by the Irish than waxier and more moist varieties grown in England. “Irish palates like dry potatoes,” Mullins said.
He plans to include naturally resistant varieties in his trials, but as a scientist he is clearly intrigued by the prospect of using 21st-
century technology to counter a disease that brought so much misery nearly 200 years ago.
“You have to look at history to move forward,” Mullins said, “and the problem hasn’t gone away; it’s getting worse. Whether GM is the answer or not we don’t know but, sure, at least let us look at it.”