Late blight is a serious disease - but there are already dozens of conventionally-bred potato varieties with much stronger resistance than the 'new improved' GM version. Photo: Graham Rawlings via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Campaigners' No to UK field trials of GM potatoes, oilseeds
7th April 2016
British NGOs have objected to two applications for open-air field trials to grow GM crops. One is for a blight-resistant potato that is much less resistant than existing non-GM varieties. The other is an oilseed to be used as fish food whose fatty acid profile has been subject to only 'rudimentary analysis'.
GM is one of the top three food safety concerns in the UK. The public don't want it and it is time that public funding went into projects that will solve real problems like food waste and poor understanding of how to choose a balanced diet.
A coalition of farmers, scientists, campaigners and charities has come together to urge the Government to stop the planting of genetically modified (GM) potatoes and oilseeds in the UK this spring.
The applications for open-air GM trials come from from the Sainsbury's Laboratory in Norwich (for blight resistant potatoes) and Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire (for fish-oil producing omega-3 fatty-acid camelina).
The campaign coalition claims in its evidence submitted to Defra demonstrating that the risks of the trials are not justified by any potential gains. Their concerns include:
- Antibiotic resistance. Some of the potatoes in the proposed trial include an antibiotic resistance 'marker' gene that could transfer to disease-causing bacteria.
- Contamination and cross-breeding with wild relatives. Pollen and seed can escape from trials and, as any gardener can tell you, viable GM potatoes could survive in the ground for many years after harvest.
- Unexpected effects of the genetic engineering process. DNA alterations can impact on how other genes are expressed and neither applicant has tested the potential environmental or food safety harms their GM plants could cause.
Blight resistance is already stronger in non-GM potatoes
The NGO coalition also questions the claimed benefits of the crops that the two trials aim to create.
"You know the chips are really down for GM when the best they can offer is a potato with a far more basic level of protection against blight than can be found in existing non-GM varieties", said Liz O'Neill, Director of umbrella group GM Freeze, which coordinated the objections.
"What's more, those conventional varieties have already reached the market without the tax-payer-funded subsidies that have gone into these projects."
According to the objection submited to Defra, Marker Assisted Selection (MAS), a non-GM technique that hugely speeds up conventional breeding, offers "a quicker, and less risky, means than GM to the development ofnew potato varieties that combine resistance to late blight and many other problematic pests and diseases, with desirable quality traits."
It continues: "The lack of public support and demand for GM potatoes from UK retailers and processors suggeststhat the GM approach should be abandoned and replaced with a publicly funded breeding programme based on MAS targeting important traits such as resistance tolate blight and potato cyst nematodes (PCN).
"This programme should also be linked with research and development into agronomic techniques to reduce potato pest and disease problems (there are 600 identified in the UK) and develop sustainable production techniques."
Also, while the naturally blight-resistant potato cultivars have six or more genes than confer resistance, the GM varieties planned would each have only one. This would allow the blight fungus to quickly evolve resistance making them at best a "short term solution".
Uncertain benefits from omega-3 camelina
O'Neill is also dubious as to the benefits from the GM camelina seeds, which are intended for fish food rather than direct human consumption. "Evidence on the health impacts of omega-3s is very mixed and the idea that growing them on prime agricultural land will make the fish farming industry sustainable is more than a little fishy."
According to the objection, there is a high risk that the GMO will spread into the environment: "Pollen and seeds could escape from the trial site through dispersal by wind, wildlife or machinery. Human error and mix ups could also result in accidental releases, not only to the environment but also to the human food chain or even directly to humans.
"Therefore some consideration needs to be made of food safety in the event of the GM camelina seed / oil being consumed by humans. Food safety to humans would have to be considered in the event of possible commercialisation of this GM crop anyway, even if it is intended solely as an animal feed, so it would be unwise to proceed without properly considering the risks in this area."
And that's no straightforward matter: "Unfortunately, it still remains the case that there has been only rudimentary analysis of the fatty acid profile in subsequent publications and no consideration given to possible unintended consequences of the genetic modification.
"The attempted genetic engineering of a novel metabolic pathway is far more ambitious than the genetic engineering in current GM crops (eg GM Roundup Ready soya, which contains four genetic elements). Therefore, there are likely to be some unintended effects.
"It is vital that these are actively searched for, evaluated and considered in terms of food and environmental safety as they could be important to food and environmental safety in the event of an escape."
Public money must be spent where it will help!
Pat Thomas, Director of Beyond GM, said: "These trials are promoted to the public as ultimately being about 'public good'. But this narrative only serves as misdirection, taking our attention away from the fact that, at best, genetically engineered crops like the GM potato are unnecessary, since there are already naturally bred varieties that are more resilient and resistant to blight.
"At worst, as in the case of the GM camelina, which is being produced to feed farmed fish, they are being used to support and perpetuate some of the filthiest, most unsustainable farming practices around. After more than 20 years we know there is no magic to GMOs.
"In fact, they are the worst kind of abracadabra, distracting us from more important action on sustainable, agorecological farming and food."
O'Neill concluded: "GM is one of the top three food safety concerns in the UK. The public don't want it and it is time that public funding went into projects that will solve real problems like food waste and poor understanding of how to choose a balanced diet."
The coalition of NGOs that submitted the two comprehensive objections is made up of GM Freeze, Beyond GM, GM Watch, GeneWatch UK, GM Free Cymru, Soil Association, Organic Research Center, Organic Growers Alliance, EcoNexus, Mums Say No to GMOs, GM Free Dorset, Unicorn Grocery Ltd, Action Against Allergy, Sevenoaks Friends of the Earth, Find Your Feet, the Springhead Trust, White Home Farm, Whole Organic Plus, ACE Energy, Shepton Farms Ltd and South Gloucester Friends of the Earth.
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