As National Chip Week kicks off, potatoes are at the centre of a new debate about GM technology in the UK, sparked by news of a successful trial of a blight-resistant variety of genetically modified potatoes.
The results of the three-year trial, which involved genetically modified Desiree potatoes, were published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B today.
Crop diseases such as blight were an increasing problem for growers, requiring widespread use of pesticides, the authors of the article said. “Disease pressure on potatoes and wheat in the UK is severe during wet summers such as that of 2012. Potato farmers in northern Europe typically spray 10-15 (and up to 25) times per year to control late blight.”
However, while standard potatoes became infected with blight in late summer, the genetically modified Desiree potatoes had proved resistant to blight during the trial, they added. Yields were also better than for standard crops.
The blight-resistant GM potato was developed by scientists in the UK, including at The Sainsbury Laboratory, but it is unlikely to become commercially available in the UK any time soon, given restrictions around GM crops in the European Union.
Despite recent government efforts to push the case for GM technologies – spearheaded by Defra secretary of state Owen Paterson – GM crops also remain the subject of much controversial debate in the UK, making their commercial rollout unlikely.
The Soil Association said there was no market for GM potatoes in the UK and warned potato growers’ livelihoods could be put at risk by cross-contamination with GM crops.
“The direct risk of GM contamination of non-GM crops via cross-pollination would be less with GM potatoes than with some other crops,” said head of policy Emma Hockridge. “But, as Defra have acknowledged, there is risk of contamination in later years via potato volunteers – small, missed or spilt potatoes left in the ground at harvest which can remain viable for some time, and which already cause major weed problems for potato growers. Cross-pollination from volunteers would pose significant risks.”
Meanwhile, GeneWatch UK said the research – which it claimed had cost £3.2m to date – was a waste of taxpayers’ money, given that blight-resistant potatoes, produced through traditional breeding methods rather than GM, were already available. These include Sarpo potatoes, originally developed in Hungary.
Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, said: “We will read the results of the trial with interest, but you have to start by asking whether or not we’re getting good value for the public money spent on this project. Welsh researchers at the Savari Trust have already developed a whole suite of non-GM potato varieties that have excellent blight resistance, crop well and won’t be rejected by a UK market that has made it clear time and again, they just don’t want to eat GM foods.”
New GM inquiry
The controversy around the new GM potatoes come as the Science and Technology Committee of MPs last week kicked off a new inquiry into GM technologies and EU rules – particularly the application of the so-called precautionary principle in assessing new GM crops – restricting their use in the UK.
“GM technology potentially offers an array of benefits, but concerns are being expressed that it is being held back by misuse of the precautionary principle,” the committee’s chair, Andrew Miller, said on Friday. “In this inquiry we will be looking at whether such restrictions are hampering UK scientific competitiveness and whether they are still appropriate in light of the available evidence on the safety of GM.”
The committee has issued a call for written evidence on GM foods as part of the first phase of its inquiry. The deadline is 23 April.