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Digging GM potatoes with the Irish

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  • Ireland’s version of the EPA has given the nod to genetically modified potato field trials. The reaction to the announced four-year trials has been predictable: anti-GM groups belting out apocalyptic predictions, threatening to destroy GM fields, and screaming worn-out boilerplate about green credentials and organic salvation.

In 2008, Khalil Semhat dug up the mother of all potatoes on his farm in Lebanon — a spud leviathan. He had to get a friend to help loose the 25-pound beast from the ground. But potato purists across the globe were crushed when it was revealed that Semhat had birthed (sorry, I meant “grown”) a 25-pound sweet potato.

But the veil of grief lifted just two years later when Peter Glazebrook, in his garden in England, shoveled up an 8-pound, 4-ounce specimen of old-school potato. It mashed the old record by 9 ounces. The Guinness Book of Records crowd went wild. Curiously, Glazebrook once owned the record for growing the world’s longest carrot — 17 feet. (The carrot record has since been extended beyond 19 feet.) Maybe Glazebrook will attempt a 20-foot carrot in 2013. (The fabled 20-foot carrot barrier is considered unbreakable, but as one vegetable enthusiast said off the record: “So was the 4-minute mile.”)

Anyhow, veering away from the merger of home gardening and extreme sports, potatoes have just made headlines again, and landed squarely in the middle of GM politics. Ireland’s version of the EPA has given the nod to genetically modified potato field trials. Ireland’s potatoes have been hit hard the last few years by late blight. The reaction to the announced four-year trials has been predictable: anti-GM groups belting out apocalyptic predictions, threatening to destroy GM fields, and screaming worn-out boilerplate about green credentials and organic salvation.

Nothing new under the dim European sun; the EU is in a perpetual slow-dance with GM food. Sort of an on-again, off-again affair with a GM crop ban. The Irish leap into the fray is not exactly a watershed moment, but it does resonate. Europe’s potato crops have been hit hard by blight in recent years. (Yes, the same blight that killed over 1 million Irish citizens in the Great Famine between 1845 and 1852.)

The history books show potatoes originating in the Andes region of South America and making their way to Europe post-Columbus, but the Great Famine trumps that identity. The potato is lock, stock and barrel associated with Ireland — despite howls of protest from Peruvians complaining about thievery: “The Spaniards stole our gold; and then the Irish made off with our taters.”

With Ireland planning to run the GM potato trial for a four-year stretch, the protests will get longer and louder. GM potatoes have a resistance gene (found in wild potatoes) that protects them from blight. Without the gene, the potato industry will continue to spend millions of dollars annually to fight blight with chemical treatments.  Four years from now, at the trials’s conclusion, Europe will most likely still be waltzing with a GM crop ban — eyes closed and ears clamped.

No wonder that BASF, the world’s biggest chemical company, is shutting its Plant Science headquarter doors in Germany and moving to the United States.

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