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Cooperation DuRPh-project / Bioimpuls: friendly neighbours or uncomfortable partners?

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Cooperation between the DuRPh-project and Bioimpuls, friendly neighbours or uncomfortable partners?

Last August there was a public open day of two breeding projects from WUR: DuRPh and Bioimpuls.[1] DuRPh, Durable Resistance to Phytophthora, is a project where scientists are trying to stack several resistance genes from wild potatoes in known cultivars, through genetic modification. The projects is dual purpose; to improve the public image of GM food and to discover if stacking different kinds of genes create a durable resistance to late blight (Phytophthora).
The project is funded by the government for a period of ten years for 1 billion euro and is now in its eighth year.
The Bioimpuls program also has the objective of durable resistance to Phytopthora, but through classical breeding methods rather than GM. Next to the goal of late blight resistance there is the desire to have resistance to other diseases as well, to have early tuber formation and large production in poor nutrient soils.
The Bioimpuls program is also funded by the government, two hundred thousand euros, and works together with breeding companies and breeding farmers. [2]

The DuRPh program and the Bioimpuls programs work closely together, sharing some research staff and sharing research outcomes. For example, the Bioimpuls program uses the knowledge about markers that reside around the resistance or R-genes so they can select potatoes that have these R-genes more easily. Getting these markers is an expensive project, it costs around one hundred euros per marker. This gives the organic Bioimpuls program an uncomfortable reliance upon its GM neighbour; unlikely bed-partners indeed.

In this sense, cooperation is very useful for the Bioimpuls project; despite their small budget, they are able to make use of the R-gene markers and breed their potatoes accordingly. However, we must look to the larger picture; that the DuRPh project aims to make the public opinion towards genetic modification more positive. If successful, this could lead to genetically modified food being grown in the Netherlands, with organic crops and the wider environment becoming at risk.
The scientist of the DuRPh project attempt to argue that because the genetic modification is done with R-genes from sexually compatible species, the risks are lower as no new gene constructs are introduced.

In the Netherlands the government now supports that, because species barriers are not crossed, this kind of genetic modification should be exempted from the safety and other regulations that are currently in place for genetically modified crops. Indeed, the term ´cisgenesis´ has been created, in order to classify this type of genetic modification as distinct. However, the consequences of forcefully opening a genome of a plant and inserting one or more genes in an unspecified place are still unknown and might prove to be harmful. Cautious scientists argue that that more research should be done before these and other GM crops are released into the environment. [3]

The genes that are discovered in the DuRPh project are patented, a sure sign that DuRPh hope to capitalise on the project in the same way all biotech companies capitalise on GMOs. Those at DuRPh state vague intentions of offering humanitarian licenses available to developing countries and that they are thinking about how they will make licenses available to breeding companies. They hope to be able to take popular cultivars and insert ´their´ R-genes into it. For example, taking a Bintje, and creating a genetically modified Phytophthora resistant Bintje +. However, problems have already arisen, and it seems that inserting genes is not uniformly possible, with Bintje proving to be a bigger challenge than others.

Both projects have to think about how to manage the potatoes both during trials and if they are ever to be grown commercially, as Phytophthora rapidly adapts to overcome resistance. The DuRPh scientists hope to keep outsmarting the Phytophthora, keeping track of what kind of spores are active in each season and check if these have adapted themselves already to the new R-genes. This could mean that conventional farmers are less dependent on certain pesticides (although herbicides and fertilisers would still be used on the same scale) but the farmers would still be dependent on an institution holding the patents of varieties they need, and the knowledge of which kind of R-gene variety is appropriate for which season. This is a step away from food sovereignty not towards it.

The disparancy in funding between the two projects is immense. If money from the DuRPh project could be redirected into the Bioimpuls program, they would not bound to cooperation and support with DuRPh. We should ask ourselves the question, in a world where environmental concerns and questions of corporate control over our food system are so immediate, why is the Dutch government giving a genetic modification green-washing project being given so much precedence over research into sustainable organic alternatives?

[1] See www.durph.nl for an explanation about the day
[2] For more information about Bioimpuls http://www.louisbolk.nl/bioimpuls/index.php?i=1
[3] http://earthopensource.org/index.php/reports/58