VEGA News Item

GM – Potatoes Prompt Another Bout of Controversy - 16/06/2010

Cultivation of Genetically-Modified Potatos

1.  A week or two ago cultivation of genetically-modified potatos was begun in Norfolk, UK.  The potatos have been implanted with genes from an inedible South American breed resistant to the blight responsible for the Irish potato famine. At present only 2 rows of 192 potatos are being grown at the Sainsbury Laboratory behind a £20,000 high-security fence.  Critics complain that the £1 million project risks contaminating neighbouring farms.  Dismissing the complaints, Professor Jonathon Jones, a scientist working on the trial, said that the research would save money and the environment by reducing the need for pesticides if the trial proves successful, Professor Jones hopes commercial production of GM potatos could start within 5 years.  The Sunday Times (13/06/10) offers a briefing on the controversy.

2.  GM foods, produced from plants in which genes have been added or deleted, “arrived in world markets in the early 1990s.”  They are seen as a way of producing higher yields, crops resistant to disease or improving other qualities, such as shelf life.  Their use is now widespread in some countries, in particular the USA.  Britain has resisted plantation of commercial GM crops after strong opposition from the public.  Applications for field trials have been approved by DEFRA and an independent committee appointed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) assesses environmental impact.  The European Union also imposes tight controls, requiring clear labelling and testing.

3.  The coalition government has appointed Caroline Spelman, a former lobbyist for biotechnology, as environment secretary.  She recently praised “the beneficial effects” of GM in the “right circumstances,” citing the Norfolk potato trial, which she approved, as an example. However, an investigation by the FSA to gauge public opinion on GM crops has run into controversy.  Two members of the steering group overseeing it have resigned, claiming that it has been hijacked for “GM propaganda.”  Professor Brian Wynne, vice-chairman of the group, and Helen Wallace, director of the thinktank GeneWatch, both left within a week of each other.  The FSA denies the allegations, insisting that the consultation is “balanced”.

4.  Proponents of GM technology claim that it is needed to combat the threat of food shortages that may be increased by climate changes, depleted resources, and population growth.  A report last year by  the Royal Society called for “a new revolution in agriculture,” supported by £2 billion investment in R and D “before its too late.”  It claimed that within 20 years Britain could be a world
leader in producing drought-resistant, self-fertilizing “supercrops.”  However, environmental groups warn that there could be unforeseen dangers in unleashing in artificial mutations on the natural ecosystem.  The Soil Association, which wants GM crops banned, asserts that so far they have “underperformed.”

5.  We understand that the GM crops now growing in Norfolk are intended for commercial purposes and not for consumption by humans.  Ornamental flower crops, some carrying a genetic alteration, may be regarded likewise, and escape the full stipulations in the EU regulations; however, the flower growers are looking for opportunities in more favorable climes.  Ablation of genetic matial, eg in Golden Promise barley, by irradiation or chemical destruction, to make well-regarded Scottish beers, has been used for some years without objection.


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