EPA gives consent for GM potato field trials

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has today given consent to Teagasc, Oak Park, Co Carlow, to carry out field trials on a genetically modified (GM) potato line with improved resistance to late potato blight.  The consent is subject to eight conditions. These Conditions address the following matters:


Ø  The scope of the consent

Ø  The duration, location and area of the field trials

Ø  The management of the field trials

Ø  The duty upon the notifier to inform the Agency of new information

Ø  Requirements in relation to reporting to the Agency

Ø  The detection method for the identification of the GM potatoes

Ø  Sampling the trial site, and charges for carrying out site inspections, auditing and monitoring.


The approval for field trials follows a detailed examination and assessment by the EPA of a notification from Teagasc. In assessing the application the EPA has carried out extensive consultations with all appropriate state agencies and government departments including the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) as well as the National Advisory Committee on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). A total of 83 representations were received from interested parties and these were fully assessed as part of the licensing process.

The field trials will be carried out at one location at Oak Park, Co Carlow. The duration of the consent is for four years, from 2012 to 2016 (inclusive), with post-trial monitoring continuing until 2020. Planting will not exceed two hectares in area.

Under the EPA consent, the trials will be subject to strict conditions with regular monitoring and reporting to the EPA. The trial sites will also be checked for compliance with the licence conditions on a regular basis by the EPA.

Teagasc will also be required to submit bimonthly reports to the EPA during the growing season as well as an end of year report. Information about the trials including the results of monitoring will be available to the public at EPA Headquarters in Wexford and on the EPA website (www.epa.ie).

A three-month period during which a judicial review can be sought has now commenced.

All related documentation is available for download at http://www.epa.ie/whatwedo/licensing/gmo/fieldtrial/


What are GMO’s?

GMOs are defined as organisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi, plant and animal cells, plants and animals) that are capable of replication or of transferring genetic material in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination. GMO technology is often called ‘modern biotechnology’ or ‘gene technology’, ‘recombinant DNA technology’ or ‘genetic engineering’. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species.


Why is late potato blight a focus for study?

Late blight is a very common disease in potatoes grown in Ireland.  Many plant pathologists consider it to be the most dangerous potato plant disease in the world because of how rapidly it can spread when conditions are warm and moist, causing devastating losses.

In recent years, more aggressive potato blight strains have emerged, in particular the sexual form of the fungus which can produce oospores (a type of spore), which can overwinter in the soil and which has the potential to infect potatoes at an early stage (plant emergence). On foot of this, control measures have resulted in potato growers being forced to substantially increase the amount of chemicals to control the disease.

According to data published by scientists at Teagasc, Oak Park, annual losses due to this fungus in Ireland have been estimated at €15m per annum and the management of this potato disease requires as many as 15 fungicide applications throughout the growing season in order to control crop losses caused by the fungus and to control this plant pathogen.


When was the licence application received by EPA?

A notification seeking consent for the performance of GM potato field trials was received by the EPA on the 27th January 2012 from Teagasc, Oak Park, Co Carlow. 


Who did EPA consult as part of its licence assessment process?

The EPA’s extensive consultation process included: the EPA Advisory Committee on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as well as consideration of the comments and concerns expressed in the 83 representations received from interested parties.


In what way has the GM potato line been modified?

The GM potato line has been transformed with an R or resistance gene along with its native promoter and terminator intact, using GMO technology. The R gene confers the GM potato line with resistance to the late blight fungus (Phytophthora infestans). 

The GM potato line is cisgenic; the R gene was taken from a wild potato species (Solanum venturii) originating in South America and was reinserted into the genome of a potato variety commonly cultivated in the EU (Solanum tuberosum cultivar Desiree) i.e. that is to say the R gene was reinserted back into the same species or a phylogenetically closely related species.

Cisgenesis is one of the techniques of genetic engineering that is currently being considered for exclusion from the scope of the GMO legislation by the European Commission.


Why is a field trial important?

The deliberate release of GMOs into the environment for field trial purposes in Ireland and in other EU Member States are mainly carried out for the purposes of study, research, demonstration and development of novel varieties. The behaviour of the GMO in an open environment and its interactions with other organisms and the environment are important aspects to be studied at the field trial stage. In fact, the EU Directive on the deliberate release of GMOs foresees that the field trial stage is a necessary step in the development of new products derived from, or containing GMOs.


Are field trials with GM potatoes taking place elsewhere?

The field trial will be performed as part of an EU publicly funded 7th Framework research programme called AMIGA (Assessing and Monitoring the Impacts of GM plants on Agro-ecosystems). The AMIGA consortium consists of 22 partners representing 15 EU Member States.


The purpose of the field trial is to:

  • Quantify the impact of GM potato cultivation on bacterial, fungal, nematode and earthworm diversity in the soil, compared to a conventional potato system;
  • Identify integrated pest management (IPM) strategies and components which could be positively or negatively affected by the adoption of GM late blight resistant potato;
  • Employ the project’s resources as a tool for education and demonstration in order to proactively engage and discuss the issues that most concern stakeholders and the public at large in regards to the cultivation of GM crops in Ireland.


The same GM potato line, as will be used during the Teagasc field trial, was released in 3 locations in the Netherlands in 2011. During these trials no unforeseen effects as compared to conventional potato varieties were observed according to the Dutch Competent Authority.

GM potatoes with improved resistance to late blight (similar GMO) are currently being trialled in Belgium (since March 2011) and in the UK (since May 2010). These trials will continue until October 2012.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is currently considering an application from BASF for a GM potato, resistant to late blight disease for authorisation under Regulation 1829/2003 for GM food and feed. This application is for the import, processing and cultivation of a Phytophthora (late blight) resistant potato within the EU and could have relevance for Irish agriculture.


What happens next if the trials are positive?


Teagasc have stated that they are not in the business of developing GM crops for commercialisation. However, if the results of the experimental release are positive,  biotech companies may decide to place the GMO potato on the market, i.e. make it available to farmers for cultivation purposes. It is important to point out that the placing on the market of a GMO cannot proceed without the prior approval under the provisions of Part C of Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release into the environment or under Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 on food and feed. If approval is granted under the comitology procedure at EU level, then the GMO may then be placed on the market in the EU for purposes of cultivation, importation, or transformation into different products for food and feed use.

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