Saturday, March 6, 2010

Second generation GM can't come soon enough

This week’s decision by the newly-installed European Commission (EC) to allow genetically modified (GM) potato varieties to be grown in some EU countries brings to somewhat of a conclusion, a 13-year campaign by the German chemical company BASF.

An edited version of this article appears on the Science Blog. View it here.

The potato in question, Amflora benefits from the gene for a particularly uneconomic form of starch (amylose) being turned off by genetic modification. This means that the useful starch that is produced (amylopectin) doesn’t need to be separated from the useless form.

The starch is used in the paper, textiles and adhesives industries. BASF say that while the starch will not be used in human food, they may use the product in animal feed.

Amflora also carries an extra gene called neomycin phosphotransferase II (nptII) which makes the potato resistant to the antibiotics neomycin and kanamycin. This ‘antibiotic resistance marker gene’ has provoked much debate and is focused on by opponents of GM technology.

In June 2009, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that these marker genes, including nptII are unlikely to cause adverse effects on human health and the environment, but due to limitations to sampling and detection they were unable to be conclusive. They did however re-emphasise that they considered Amflora to be safe.

"Insertion can be achieved by using a bacterium to “ferry” the gene into the plant cell or by blasting it in using a gene gun"The antibiotic resistance marker genes are a remnant of the genetic modification process that produced the potatoes in the first place. GM plants are produced by inserting novel genes into individual plant cells and then growing the plant cells into whole plants in the laboratory. Insertion can be achieved by using a bacterium to “ferry” the gene into the plant cell or by blasting it in using a gene gun. Alternatively, the tough plant cell wall can be stripped off and the gene can be inserted into this “naked” cell.

Whatever way it is inserted, not all of the plant cells treated will successfully take up the new gene and incorporate it into its own DNA; perhaps just 5 cells out of every 1000 in particularly susceptible plants. It is necessary therefore to be able to select those cells which have been modified from those which have not.

By not only inserting the novel gene, but also tagging a marker gene onto it, it ensures that cells which have been successfully modified exhibit resistance to a specific range of antibiotics. In the case of Amflora, it means that only those plant cells which will grow in the presence of kanamycin and neomycin have been successfully modified. The successful cells can then be allowed to grow into whole plants. However, these whole plants will contain the antibiotic resistance genes in every one of its cells.

BASF first submitted its Amflora potato for approval in 1996 but an EU-wide moratorium on GM between 1998 and 2004 delayed the process substantially. When the potato was resubmitted for approval after the moratorium ended, progress was so slow that BASF took the EC to court in 2008 to force them to come to a decision.

The chemical company filed an action against the EC in the European Court of First Instance for “failure to act” and decide on the issue despite the EFSA saying in two separate reports that the product had no harmful effects on human health and was as safe as any conventional potato. The company claimed that the previous commissioner, Stavros Dimas, “unjustifiably delayed” the decision on several occasions.

Now, within weeks of stepping into the role, the new European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, John Dalli, has given the green light for planting to begin. BASF say the potatoes will be grown in Germany and the Czech Republic this year as well as Sweden and The Netherlands in 2011.

Opponents of GM technology have been quick to denounce the decision, with Greenpeace saying that Dalli has “steam-rolled” a decision through. Given that the potato variety in question has undergone 13 years of testing since its first submission, this analogy of a steam-roller might be better applied to the lumbering decision making process in Europe rather than this final decisive move by the new Commissioner.

At the crux of this issue is the consumer’s opinion on GM foodstuffs and GM organisms in general. Consumers genuinely do not see the benefit for them of using GM products.

"there is a need to move beyond GM crops that confer benefits to industry and growers alone and towards second generation GM"For this reason, there is a need to move beyond GM crops that confer benefits to industry and growers alone and towards second generation GM which produces added health and nutritional benefits for consumers. The president and CEO of BASF Plant Science Dr. Hans Kast is on record as saying that the Amflora potato represents a potential added value to European farmers of €100 million annually. The company has also pointed out that they are loosing between €20 and 30 million in license income for every lost cultivation season.

Perhaps I’m being presumptuous, but I can’t imagine many Irish or European consumers laying awake at night worrying about lost revenues for BASF. What Irish consumers are concerned about however, are real and tangible benefits from their foods.

In a study carried out in 2005, 42% of Irish consumers surveyed indicated that they would be willing to purchase a hypothetical GM-produced yoghurt if it had anti-cancer properties. In the same study, 44% of consumers said that they would use a GM-produced dairy spread if it had anti-cancer properties.

These second generation GM crops also have a role to play in developing countries, with the development of biofortified foodstuffs to counteract micronutrient malnutrition among the poor.

Undoubtedly, some British and Irish consumers, in common with their European counterparts are reluctant to consume GM crops and see them grown in their countries. The focus of industry on benefits to the grower and seed producer rather than on consumer-centred benefits will prolong this reluctance and hamper the innovation in our food and agriculture industries which is so badly needed at this time.


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