Last week’s announcement that Ireland’s environmental protection agency approved the nation’s first trial of the genetically modified potato has reactivated the conversation about the spuds, which have actually been kicking around Europe -- on a trial basis -- since 2010.
Potatoes are an industrial crop; we grow nearly as many of them worldwide as we do corn, soy, wheat, and sugar, and those industries all rely heavily on genetic engineering. And -- like corn, sugar, and soy -- potato starch is now often valued for its indirect uses, such as in animal feed and biofuel. So it’s not surprising that industry forces would be pushing for giant swaths of industrial-starch-producing GMO potatoes. But to do so in Ireland would involve a unique historical irony.
You see, it just so happens that the Irish potato famine of the 19th century is held up as one of the most striking examples of the way monocrops -- those grown with little or no genetic diversity -- are vulnerable to disease. Heralded as a miracle when it arrived from South America in the 1800s, the potato produced more calories per acre than wheat and corn, and virtually did away with the mass-scale hunger many European countries were facing at the time. (Some say it was the potato that made European nations into world superpowers, and its cultivation also marked the beginning of today’s industrial agriculture model.)