GM potatoes heading to a store near you
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent and i. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; four times highly commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigations into the tobacco industry. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Wednesday 02 November 2011
A genetically modified (GM) potato could go on sale in British supermarkets within four years. A German agrochemicals company has taken the first steps towards European approval of a GM potato that is resistant to late blight, a fungal disease that exacerbated the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.
BASF Plant Science, based in Limburgerhof, submitted documents on the safety of the potato to the European Food Safety Authority yesterday. It will assess the impact of the product on humans, animals and the environment.
If approved, the new potato, called Fortuna, will then be considered by the European Commission, which could decide whether it can be grown and sold across all EU member states, including Britain, as early as 2014 or 2015.
Ten years ago, public opposition to GM food across Europe prevented the planned introduction of herbicide-tolerant crops developed in the US. BASF believes it can persuade the public to accept its GM potato, which has two extra genes taken from a wild strain that grows in the mountains of Mexico, because of its potential benefits to the environment in reducing the need to use fungicidal sprays against late blight.
"Potato farmers will be able reduce the use of fungicides dramatically. Instead of spraying 10 or 16 times per crop, the farmer will only need to spray two or three times to control fungal infections such as late blight," said BASF.
"Fortuna is focussed for a market introduction in Europe only, because Fortuna is a potato variety adapted to the climate and cultivation conditions in Europe. We focus on regions where the late blight pressure is high. But late blight is a problem in all potato-growing regions and therefore we will apply for commercial cultivation in all EU 27 countries and outside the EU for import."
Over the past six years, BASF has carried out late-blight field trials with Fortuna in the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, France, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Germany. It has also carried out extensive food safety tests on laboratory animals to satisfy concerns that the potato is safe to eat.
Late blight, caused by a fungus which invades potato crops in wet summer weather, causes the loss of up to 20 per cent of the annual harvest, weighing 14 million tonnes and costing £2.1bn.
How they did it
The first stage in creating the blight-resistant GM potato was to identify the precise genes responsible for conferring fungal resistance in wild potatoes. Once these were identified, scientists could synthesise the genes artificially in the laboratory using a "gene machine".
The next step involved injecting these artificial copies of the natural genes into a commericial potato variety. To do this, scientists used a soil bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens which has a circular strand of DNA, called a "plasmid", that it can inject into plant cells.
Scientists exploited this trait to inject a plasmid containing the synthesised fungal-resistance genes into the commerical potato plant to create the GM Fortuna variety.
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