crop geek | 23.08.2006 11:02
GM firm plans potato trials in Britain
· First planting next spring if Defra approves scheme
· Crops will be modified to resist blight fungus
Ian Sample, science correspondent
Wednesday August 23, 2006
Fields of genetically modified potatoes could be planted in Britain as early as next spring under controversial plans being considered by officials.
The plant science company BASF has applied to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to conduct two field trials of GM potatoes, modified with genes to resist late blight, the fungus that devastated Ireland's potato crop in the famine of the 1840s.
If permission is granted by the environment secretary, David Miliband, the trials will become the first in Britain since the government's field scale trials, which were conducted to assess the environmental implications of GM crop farming and completed in 2003. The prospect of GM crop trials alarmed anti-GM campaigners who fear they could lead to contamination of non-GM food supplies.
The application represents a testing of the water by multinational biotechnology companies since GM crop research was shifted out of Britain en masse in response to the negative public opinion and the widespread trashing of GM crop trials by anti-GM activists.
If the plans are approved, BASF will plant two hectares of GM potatoes in April next year, one in Derbyshire and another at the National Institute for Agricultural Botany in Cambridge. After three to four years of trials the company will seek permission to market, grow and sell the potatoes in Britain.
All of the potatoes grown in the trials must be dug up and transported to laboratories in secure vehicles for testing before being destroyed. Researchers must then observe the field the following season and uproot any remaining potatoes that appear.
The trials would follow ongoing tests of the GM potatoes in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands. "This would be our first GM trial in the UK and we need to conduct these to see how the crop grows in different conditions," said Barry Stickings of BASF. "I hope that society, including the NGOs, realise that all we are doing is increasing choice."
Late blight (Phytophthora infestans) causes devastating losses to the farming industry, amounting to about £50m each year, despite regular spraying of fungicides. To genetically modify potatoes to resist the blight, researchers at BASF extracted genes from wild relatives of the potato found in Mexico and inserted them into crop potatoes. The genes respond to the fungus by killing off cells around the site of infection, a sacrificial defence that saves the plant from destruction.
If the trials are approved, scientists will infect some GM potatoes with the fungus and wait for natural infection to strike others. They will then assess the effectiveness of the protection.
Andy Beadle, an expert in fungal resistance at BASF, said the risks of contamination from GM crops are minimal because potatoes reproduce through the production of tubers, unlike other crops such as oil seed rape which produces pollen that can be carried for miles on the wind.
Julian Little, spokesman for the GM industry group, the Agricultural Biotechnology Commission, said: "This is a big deal. There have been no trials in this country since the government's field scale trials and the industry is going to be very interested to see how these go."
A Defra spokesman said: "This application will be assessed thoroughly for safety to human health and the environment and considered by the independent experts on the advisory commitee for releases to the environment (Acre)."
Liz Wright, a GM campaigner at Friends of the Earth said: "We have a problem with field trials and with potatoes. The main problem is ensuring you get every scrap of the crop out of the ground afterwards. If you don't manage that, you can get them growing again the next year."
Gains and risks
How are GM crops produced?
Beneficial genes are snipped out of organisms, often other plants, and inserted into the genome of the crop. One way to do this is to use a harmless virus that has been modified to carry the beneficial genes
Are GM crops grown in Britain?
Not yet, but last year six European countries farmed GM crops
What are the risks?
Some GM crops, such as oilseed rape, produce pollen that can potentially fertilise non-GM varieties. To minimise the risks, farmers would have to plant these away from other crops. GM potatoes produce a minimal amount of pollen
How big is the potato market?
Potatoes are the fourth-largest staple food crop in the world. Farmers spend about £20m on fungicides to protect against late blight
What is the benefit of GM potatoes?
Potatoes are sprayed about 15 times a season to protect them against late blight. GM potatoes would need spraying only a couple of times