The humble potato is a staple food in many diets around the world. Up until now, most potatoes have managed to thrive without the intervention of ‘boffins’ and mega-agri giants such as Monsanto and BASF. But that is set to change as scientists have genetically modified potatoes to resist blight.
GMO potatoes are not a new concept. As far back as 1995 Monsanto gained approval in the US for its NewLeaf variety of potato which was designed to resist the Colorado potato beetle. In 2010, BASF was given EU approval to produce its Amflora variety which was designed to produce large amounts of starch for use in industry.
Both Monsanto’s and BASF’s GMO potatoes have since been discontinued. Monsanto’s because of better pesticides against the beetle and the high cost to farmers, and BASF’s because of widespread objection to GMO production in Europe.
But now, the Sainsbury Laboratory and the John Innes Centre in the UK have been developing a variety of potato to resist blight, said to be a disease that has plagued farmers for centuries, and was the reason for the Irish potato famine in the 1840s.
The scientific trial started in 2010, when the researchers introduced a gene to the Desiree variety of potato from a South American relative which grows in the wild.
Professor Jonathan Jones, the author of the research paper, told the BBC “Breeding from wild relatives is laborious and slow, and by the time a gene is successfully introduced into a cultivated variety the late blight pathogen may already have evolved the ability to overcome it,” and added “And I think it is better to control disease with genetics than with chemistry.”
Rather than being grown from seeds, the GM potatoes are grown from tubers which are sterile, and the scientists claim that the risk of GM pollen escaping to infect other crops does not arise.
The scientists have already licensed the technology to a US company, Simplot, but have yet to gain EU approval.
Professor Jones said that it was unfortunate that the Americans would benefit from the new variety of potato within a couple of years, but the variety would not be available in Europe for 8 to 10 years because of the regulatory process.
Liz O’Neil, director of GM Freeze, (a campaign organisation against genetic modification) told the BBC “Is anyone really going to grow, sell or buy genetically modified potatoes? The law says that they will have to be labelled GM. Experience shows that the UK doesn’t want GM in its shopping basket, and British farmers are far too smart to grow something they can’t sell.”
Perhaps we will see new items on menus, such as ‘Mutant Mash’ and ‘Chucky Chips’ – all guaranteed to mess up your natural system over time.
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