Warning over UK’s f irst GM potatoes
Ministers back ‘Frankenstein food’ trial in Norfolk
THE first British field trial of genetically modified potatoes was planted yesterday – in defiance of public opinion and complaints from green campaigners.
The test, funded by the taxpayer, is designed to create a crop resistant to a serious disease called late blight.
But critics argue the experiment is a waste of public money because blight-resistant potatoes produced through natural techniques already exist.
They also say the GM crops could be a risk to food safety.
The trial is being carried out on a plot in Norfolk by scientists from the Sainsbury Laboratory, which specialises in plant research. It is part of a programme that has cost taxpayers £1.7million since 2001.
Approval was granted by the department of the new Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, who has a long history of support for GM farming. Formal approval came from one of her ministers, Lord Henley.
However, studies of public opinion have revealed enormous resistance to the development of so-called Frankenstein foods.
There has been little independent research into the health effects of eating GM food, while trials of other modified crops have identified risks to neighbouring wildlife.
The GM Freeze campaign group last night raised concerns, including food safety fears over an antibiotic-resistant marker gene implanted in the trial potatoes.
Director Pete Riley said using GM technology to tackle blight was expensive, unproven and ‘disruptive for the industry because of the measures needed to prevent contamination to protect consumer choice’.
‘Conventional breeding is miles ahead of GM in producing very good resistance in varieties that are already on the market,’ he added. Friends of the Earth called into question the wider benefits of GM crops. Food campaigner Kirtana Chandrasekaran said: ‘The largest scientific farming study ever conducted saw no clear role for GM crops in feeding the world – and their roll-out in other countries reveals that they benefit big business, not local farmers or hungry people.
‘We can feed a growing global population without trashing the planet or resorting to factory farms and GM crops.’
But Professor Jonathan Jones, of the Sainsbury Laboratory, defended the trial, saying it could help reduce the use of chemical sprays.
‘We have isolated genes from two different wild potato species that confer blight resistance,’ he said. ‘We are testing whether these work in a field environment to protect a commercial potato variety, Desiree, against this destructive disease.’
Late blight spreads easily and can wipe out entire fields. It was responsible for the 19th century Irish potato famine.
The trials come as Mrs Spelman moved to close down her biotech lobbying firm.
The minister has attracted mounting criticism about a possible conflict of interest with her role in taking decisions over the future of GM food.
Aides confirmed last night that she had taken steps to wind up Spelman, Cormack and Associates, which was set up with her husband Mark in 1989.
A spokesman insisted Mrs Spelman had taken the decision shortly after being appointed Environment Secretary last month. He insisted that the firm ‘did not represent GM clients’.