Not just a spud, this is likely to prove a very hot political potato indeed. It is living, knobbly proof of the determination of Brussels bureaucrats to spread GM crops throughout Europe, against the will of most of its people.
In a little-noticed move last week, the European Commission defied most of the governments to which it is supposed to answer to give the green light to growing a modified potato across the continent. It was the first time a GM crop had been authorised for cultivation in 13 years. But, now the long moratorium has been broken, similar approvals for others are expected rapidly to follow.
The decision has its origins in a couple of secret, top-level meetings called by Jose Manuel Barroso, the Commission's strongly pro-GM president. He invited the prime ministers of each of the 27 EU member states to send a personal representative along to discuss how to "speed up" the spread of the technology and "deal with" public opposition.
You can see why he was frustrated. Only one GM crop – a maize produced by Monsanto – had ever been cleared for growing in Europe, and that was way back in 1998. Other applications, including the GM potato, had failed to get through the Council of Ministers, representing the EU governments. No surprise there: about three times as many Europeans oppose genetic modification as support it.
As a result, GM crops cover only about 0.12 per cent of Europe's agricultural land, mainly in Spain – and the continent accounts for just 0.08 per cent of the area growing them worldwide. And they have been losing ground. In the past two years, both France and Germany banned the Monsanto maize, joining Austria, Hungary, Greece and Luxembourg.
The meetings' confidential minutes show that Barroso was trying to get the prime ministers to over-rule their own agriculture and environment ministers, and "look at the wider picture". And the leaders' emissaries duly called for "the speeding up of the authorisation process, based on robust assessments so as to reassure the public".
But little changed: the Commission tried to force countries to lift their bans on growing the Monsanto maize, but again failed at the Council of Ministers. So it undemocratically took matters into its own hands to launch the GM potato. Called Amflora – developed by BASF to produce starch for paper, textiles and glue – the potato has twice been to the Council for approval, in December 2006 and August 2007. Each time, as in almost all GM applications, the ministers were split between pro and anti-GM countries, and the Commission could not get the qualified majority it needed. So, last week it cynically approved the spud for cultivation – using a provision that allows it, when ministers are deadlocked, to decide over their heads.
The provision – which the Commission has already used to approve the consumption of GM crops grown outside Europe, mainly for animal feed – is deeply controversial. Five years ago, it was condemned by Markos Kyprianou, the then health and consumer protection commissioner, and by the top EC official in charge of pesticides and biotechnology. But it was retained at the insistence of the then trade commissioner, our own Lord Mandelson.
Now, instead of scrapping it, the new Commission, which took office earlier this year, has decided to extend it. Three modified maizes are expected to be authorised over the next weeks, and 14 other crops are lining up behind them. GM advocates are hailing "a new dawn".
Oddly, it is happening as increasing problems are emerging elsewhere. One of the biotech industry's greatest successes, a modified cotton in India, is losing the pest resistance for which it was developed. The Indian government has unexpectedly blocked the cultivation of the country's first GM food, an aubergine. And superweeds, resistant to herbicides, are spreading almost everywhere modified crops are grown, often because they have acquired genes though cross-pollination. Amflora is unlikely to cause this problem since it mainly multiplies through tubers. It will not be eaten by people, though it will be fed to animals. The European Food Standards Agency has pronounced it safe, but it contains a gene that confers resistance to antibiotics and there is some concern, partially supported by the European Medicines Authority, that it could interfere with treatment for diseases like TB if it were to spread to people and animals.
Already, Italy and Austria have sworn to ban the crop, and a French environment minister has voiced alarm. But Germany and the Czech Republic expect to plant it this year, with Sweden and the Netherlands to follow. Stand by for spud wars.
Village joins the renewable revolution
Nothing quite as revolutionary has happened in Hook Norton since the Vikings came through in 913AD. For the 2,000-strong village in Conservative north Oxfordshire has borrowed from the socialist traditions of Robert Owen to set up a co-operative to reduce its carbon footprint.
Next month, Low Carbon Hook Norton is to get £500,000 from the Government to kickstart its programme. Its first project will be to put solar panels on the roof of the 250-pupil primary school, financing them from the new feed-in tariff for generating small-scale renewable electricity.
Other plans include creating gas from the waste from the local real ale brewery, and providing electric cars that villagers can hire to drive to Oxford, 25 miles away. But most of the effort will go, more prosaically, to bulk-buying energy-saving materials so people can insulate their houses more cheaply.
More government money is to go to Ashton Hayes, near Chester, which has already cut average carbon emissions from its 370 homes by nearly a quarter since 2006, and – more surprisingly – to provide wind turbines and other renewables to a deprived estate in Middlesbrough, and small hydropower turbines in a former South Wales mining village.
The clunkingly entitled Low Carbon Energy Challenge, launched last month, is a pet project of Ed Miliband, who wants to enshrine it in the Labour election manifesto. As he’s writing the thing it must be in with a chance, whatever Owen would have thought of New Labour.
Geoffrey Lean, The Telegraph