23 June 2020 Exploring Views on GMO Produce in Ireland

According to Lindsay Lesniak ’21, who studied farmers’ views on genetically modified potatoes through a Student International Initiative Fund (SIIF) grant during her semester abroad, GMO foods are accepted in Ireland.

Lesniak used her SIIF grant to travel to local markets in Galway and Sligo, two of the most agriculturally-based regions in Ireland. While there, the anthropology major, who has minors in biology and environmental studies, talked to farmers to ascertain their thinking on GMO potatoes and to discuss how the management of the crop has changed with the introduction of genetically modified plants.

Lesniak says that after Ireland’s Great Famine in the mid-1800s, during which potato crops were decimated by a disease called blight, concerted efforts were made to produce a blight-resistant tuber. Those efforts continue today with both traditional cross-breeding and modern GMO techniques. “This is done through modifying the genome of the potato by transferring a gene from another species to the potato’s genome to code for blight resistance,” she explains.

By interviewing the farmers, Lesniak found an intriguing combination of acceptance of the GMO techniques, but allied with a continued reliance on age-old agricultural practices. “I found similar [positive] opinions on GMOs and on some of the traditional methods that have passed down over generations, such as using dried seaweed harvested from the bay as mulch that naturally keeps slugs and pests away,” she says.

But despite growing GMO crops, the farmers are still relying on herbicides and pesticides that are meant for non-GMO, traditional crops — and that’s not necessary, says Lesniak. “GMO’s don’t require these sprays at all due to the modification of the genome.”

Additionally, organizations such as Teagasc, Ireland’s Agriculture and Food Development Authority, are working to develop GMO varieties that rely even less on conventional pesticides and herbicides. “They are developing GMO crops to reduce the 15-20 sprays that are used during a growing season.”

Lesniak was stationed in Galway while she took anthropology and Irish studies courses at National University of Ireland Galway, and says living in the small city was an enjoyable part of her study abroad experience. “My favorite part about Galway was walking from my apartment off-campus through Eyre Square and an always-busy Shop Street to the Spanish Arch, stopping on my way for a tea and brown bread at my favorite café,” she says.