Wageningen University and Research (WUR) are currently developing and trialling late blight resistant potatoes through Genetic Modification (GM). The project runs from 2006 until 2016 and has been funded by the Dutch Ministry for Economic affairs at the price tag of ten million euros. Late Blight, scientifically known as Phythophthora Infestans, is one of many diseases that affect potato production. It causes dark blotches on the leaves and stems of potato plants, white mould can appear, and infected potatoes turn dark and rot. On conventional farms the disease is combatted using chemical fungicide sprays. The project, named DuRPh (Durable Resistance to Phytophthora), uses blight-resistant genes taken from wild varieties of potatoes, ‘stacked’ together in sets of three to five genes, and then inserted into commercial varieties of potato. The researchers say that these potatoes are identical to the original variety, except with the added benefit of blight resistance. In making genetically modified organisms, biotech companies often use ‘markers’, such as anti-biotic resistance, in order to test if the genes have been successfully transplanted. In the DuRPh project, with one third of the potatoes, the only marker is the resistance to blight. The other two thirds contact the marker genes NPTII or AHAS, genes of bacterial origin. Eventually all DuPRh-potatoes should not ahve any markers anymore.
Worryingly, the researchers at WUR are attempting to claim that their experiments do not amount to genetic modification, but ‘cisgenesis’, since the genes used to put into the commercial potato varieties come from the same species. They argue that ‘cisgenesis’ is distinct from other kinds of genetic modification, and that they should not be subject to GM regulations, such as safety testing and packaging labelling, taking away the freedom of choice from farmers and consumers. In their lobby communications, the researchers conveniently omit to mention the bacterial marker genes present in two thirds of their potatoes. They are spending a total of one million euros in the effort to promote their views amongst farmers, scientists and the wider public.
Of course the efforts at deregulation come from the motive of profit: if the trials are successful they hope to offer a service to potato breeders, taking their potatoes and inserting the stacks of resistant genes into them, in return for a slice of the profit of all sales. If regulations stayed at their current level, this would mean years of safety tests for each potato modified, meaning the project would be completely financially non-viable.
Scientists have already expressed concern at the attempts for deregulation by WUR researchers, and have been quick to assert the shared risks of traditional genetic modification and cisgenesis:
“It is widely documented that the process of transfecting any gene into a plant leads to large-scale translocations of the plant DNA, scrambling and fragmentation of the transgene, and frequent random insertions of the plasmid DNA…In addition to genetic alterations, a cisgenic plant would likely lack rigorous, tissue-specific expression of the introduced gene, thereby allowing aberrant secondary modifications of proteins, such as glysosylation, that can cause serious immunogenic responses in animals” (Schubert and Williams, 2006)
In addition, because these potatoes will have no markers and if all DuRPh-potatoes would be exempted from GMO regulations, conventional and organic farmers will have no way of tracking cross-contamination.
Organic breeders and growers maintain that they are able to combat late blight, and indeed, late blight resistant organic potatoes, such as Sarpo Mira, Bionica and Toluca, have been successfully bred. Ironically, the organic potato breeding project BioImpuls is dependent upon the insights into blight fungus and genetic developments gathered by DuRPh, due to its drastically smaller budget of 800.000 Euros, in comparison to DuRPh’s 10 million.
A huge 1 million Euros is being spent on communications and outreach, to create a positive spin around the project and the idea of ‘cisgenesis’, however, the DuRPh team has yet to publish a full report on the trials and test of the potatoes. All public communications have a purely promotional approach, stressing the advantages of Genetic Modification and disadvantages of classic breeding. The promotion focuses on the idea of the potatoes as the sustainable future of the potato industry, yet the field trials of the DuRPh project focus solely on the effectiveness of the resistance genes. There is no structured study of possible adverse environmental effects such as the effects on the soil organisms, beneficial insects, human consumption, etc.
The scientists at WUR are pushing their method as the answer to sustainable and healthy potatoes, however their attempt at deregulation could lead to untested GMOs entering the human food chain and environment. BASF, a chemical company that has been doing similar experiments for years, have already announced that they will pull out of their potato trialling after admitting that consumers in Europe do not want genetically modified food on their plates. Dutch potato seedling traders have already warned their growers to stay away from GM potatoes, and have stressed their GM free policy. It’s time WUR stops pushing a product that is unwanted and unnecessary, and could have the dangerous consequence of opening the flood gates to unregulated GM.
For further information on GM, please go to: aseed.net/gmo and gmwatch.org for English informations, aseed.net/gentech en gentech.nl voor Nederlands.
On cisgenetics: Schubert, D and Williams, D (2006) Vol. 24 No. 11 Nature Biotechnology