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 dark blotches on the leaves and stems of potato plants, white mouldcan appear, and infected potaoes turn dark and rot. On converntional farms the disease is combated 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 succesfully transplanted. In the DuRPh project, the only marker is the resistance to blight.
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. 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 resistance 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 inviable.
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 have been developed without markers, 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 Bionica and Toluca, have been succesfully bred.
The scientists at WUR are pushing their method as the answer to sustainable and healthy potaoes,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 realising consumers in Europe do not want genetically modified food on their plates. 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.