Genetic modifications have vanquished the potato’s greatest enemy: blight. In a recent three-year-long study, a GM potato not only outperformed its “natural” counterpart in yield (by a factor of two); it was also “fully resistant” to the vegetable’s most dangerous disease. If this strain of potato had been around in the 1840s, there wouldn’t have been a famine in Ireland. The BBC reports:
Potatoes are particularly vulnerable to late blight, a fungus-like organism that loves the damp and humid conditions that often occur during the growing season in Europe…The speed with which this infection takes hold and the devastating impacts on the crop make it the number one threat to six million tonnes of potatoes produced in the UK each year…. Farmers have to be continuously on their guard and need to spray up to 15 times a season to protect against the disease. […]In 2012, the third year of the trial, all the non-GM potatoes became infected with late blight by August while the modified vegetables remained fully resistant to the end of the experiment.
Environmentalists like to champion solar panels as the best way to harness the sun’s energy, but smarter crops like this one are actually a far more effective form of substituting renewable solar power for fossil fuels. Farmers have to treat conventional potato crops up to 15 times a season with fungicide, which must be manufactured, shipped and stored—all of which have consequences for the environment. Smarter seeds makes this entire process more efficient.Naturally, green campaigners in Europe are doing everything possible to keep these new plants out of their fields and produce stands. Europeans are unlikely to permit the seeds to be used. There is, however, a silver lining here, at least for the United States: the researchers licensed the new potato technology to an American company intent on growing them stateside. Americans will thus benefit from EU taxpayer money spent on this research.But let’s hope that our own Congress takes in another important lesson from this story: promoting research into smart farming—rather than grotesque boondoggles like the ethanol subsidy—is a much better way of helping farmers, hungry people around the world, and the environment.