Warn­ing over UK’s f irst GM pota­toes

Min­is­ters back ‘Franken­stein food’ trial in Nor­folk

Daily Mail - - sandra Parsons - By Sean Poul­ter Con­sumer Af­fairs Edi­tor s.poul­ter@dai­ly­mail.co.uk

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’.

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