The introduction of a genetically modified potato in Europe risks the development of human diseases that fail to respond to antibiotics, it was claimed last night.
German chemical giant BASF this week won approval from the European Commission for commercial growing of a starchy potato with a gene that could resist antibiotics – useful in the fight against illnesses such as tuberculosis.
Farms in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic may plant the potato for industrial use, with part of the tuber fed to cattle, according to BASF, which fought a 13-year battle to win approval for Amflora. But other EU member states, including Italy and Austria and anti-GM campaigners angrily attacked the move, claiming it could result in a health disaster.
During the regulatory tussle over the potato, the EU's pharmaceutical regulator had expressed concern about its potential to interfere with the efficacy of antibiotics on infections that develop multiple resistance to other antibiotics, a growing problem in human and veterinary medicine. Amflora contains a gene that produces an enzyme which generally confers resistance to several antibiotics, including kanamycin, neomycin, butirosin, and gentamicin.
The antibiotics could become "extremely important" to treat otherwise multi-resistant infections and tuberculosis, the European Medicines Authority (EMA) warned. Drug resistance is part of the explanation for the resurgence of TB, which infects eight million people worldwide every year.
"In the absence of an effective therapy, infectious Multiple Drug Resistant TB patients will continue to spread the disease, producing new infections with MDR-TB strains," an EMA spokesman said. "Until we introduce a new drug with demonstrated activity against MDR strains, this aspect of the TB epidemic could explode at an exponential level."
After member states become deadlocked on the potato's approval, the European Commission approved it for use in industries such as paper production, saying it would save energy, water and chemicals. Once the starch has been removed, the skins can be fed to animals, whose meat would not have to be labelled as GM.
The EC, whose decision was backed by the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa), said there was no good reason for withholding approval. Health and consumer policy commissioner John Dalli said: "Responsible innovation will be my guiding principle when dealing with innovative technologies."
"Stringent" controls would ensure none of the tubers were left in the ground, ensuring altered genes did not escape into the environment. Opponents fear bacteria inside the guts of animals fed the GM potato – which can cause human diseases – may develop resistance to antibiotics.
Some member states were furious. "Not only are we against this decision, but we want to underscore that we will not allow the questioning of member states' sovereignty on this matter," said Italy's Agriculture Minister, Luca Zaia. Austria said it would ban cultivation of the potato within its borders, while France said it would ask an expert panel for further research.
Campaigners accused Brussels of failing to follow the precautionary principle. Friends of the Earth's Heike Moldenhauer said: "The commissioner whose job is to protect consumers has, in one of his first decisions, ignored public opinion and safety concerns to please the world's biggest chemical company."
Campaigners suspect Brussels is in favour of the widespread planting of GM crops despite opposition by some member states. Yesterday it also announced its intention to allow states more leeway in backing GM organisms.