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scientists react to the announcement that GM potato trials will begin in the UK

The biotechnology company BASF Plant Science has been granted permission by defra (UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to trial a breed of potato genetically modified to be resistant to blight.

Chris Leaver, Sibthorpian Professor of Plant Sciences, Oxford University, said:

“This type of GM plant involves taking a resistant gene from wild type potatoes from South America where they originated and putting it into a modern commercial potato crop. Field trials in Europe of this type of potato show that it is resistant to the fungal disease called potato blight caused by Phytophthora infestans. Now it is hoped that controlled and regulated trials at two sites in the UK will confirm these results. Potato blight was the cause of the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s and is still a problem in farming today – one which is prevented by chemical spraying with fungicides. In my opinion using a natural biological method to control blight is better than using chemicals. Gene flow is not a problem in this crop because potatoes don’t reproduce sexually, instead they are propagated by using tubers.”

Professor Joe Perry, Rothamsted Research, said:

“I welcome the news that Defra have allowed trials of the new GM potatoes in the UK. As the Farm Scale Evaluations showed, the public and consumers have nothing to fear from trials of GM crops. Under EU law, GM crops can only be banned if scientists can find evidence of harm to human health or the environment. Trials are therefore the only way to gather evidence to demonstrate actual harm. Trials are an integral part of the risk assessment of GM crops; assessments must be done to ensure safety for consumers and the environment. The UK is fortunate in having skilled scientists of the highest integrity to carry out such trials fairly and effectively.”

Professor Philip Dale, Emeritus Fellow, John Innes Centre, said:

“I welcome the decision to field test the blight resistant potato. I know farmers who spray against blight every week during the blight season and anything that can reduce our dependence on chemical sprays in widespread agriculture must be evaluated at carefully.”

Professor Philip Dale, in response to Peter Melchett’s comments on Farming Today, also, said:

“The Soil Association is opposing this because they have a substantial investment in the commercial future of organic agriculture and they see these kinds of advances in general agriculture to be a threat to the profitability of organic farming.

“The negative views on GM crops and foods expressed in the GM Nation public debate (as the report acknowledges) were largely influenced by campaigning groups who for their various reasons wish to stop the evaluation of GM crops. They even wish to deny farmers and consumers the choice to evaluate them.

“Since the GM debate millions of hectares of GM crops have been grown safely worldwide and eaten by billions of people.”

Professor Christopher Pollock, Research Director, Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research and Chair of Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), said:

“ACRE has to approve all applications to grow GM crops in the field for research purposes. In this case, there are three main considerations: firstly, that potatoes from this trial won’t get into the food chain, secondly, that tubers remaining at the trial site will be destroyed and thirdly, that pollen from the plants will not cross with other potatoes to permit spread of the GMO. ACRE believes that the conditions under which the trial will be managed [BASF management plan has] satisfy [ied] these criteria and accepts that the trial will provide useful scientific information.”

Professor Mark Tester, Federation Fellow, Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics and The University of Adelaide, said:

“Using GM to put plant genes into plants is not significantly different to the processes of traditional breeding, so I am pleased to see commonsense prevail in this BASF case. Each GM event needs to be considered on its merits, to make generalised statements for or against all GM crops is simplistic and misleading. I only hope the Australian states follow suit soon and dare to consider allowing some releases!”

Professor Mike Burrell, University of Sheffield, said:

“It is certainly good to see that new trials of GM potatoes are about to take place. Potato blight is one of the most devastating diseases of crop plants and one of the most tedious to control by chemicals or other methods of plant breeding. New ways to control this disease are needed. The initial results from early trials suggest that a much needed advance has been found. All new varieties have to be judged on their merits and there is a wealth of experience in the UK on designing good trials for new varieties. There have been many successful trials of GM potatoes in the UK and the world and without such trials we cannot evaluate the risks and benefits of new crops for the consumer.”

Professor Ian Crute, Director of Rothamsted Research, said:

“Resistance to blight disease of potato would be a boon to growers of this important crop world-wide whether they produce the crop ‘organically’ or conventionally. The prospect of being able to grow disease-free crops, without regular spraying, will reduce energy imputs and avoid wasteful losses. This is a good news story and demonstrates the potential environmental and economic benefits that GM technology can deliver.”

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