‘Super spud’ or superfluous spud?

Dig a little deeper and you will find that the GMO ‘super spud’ is really a dud. Here’s why you don’t need GM potatoes in your shopping basket

March 25, 2015 by Pat Thomas

Image: Beyond GM

This morning’s news is all about a so-called ‘super spud’ – a GM potato that is supposedly blight-resistant and even better for you nutritionally than ‘ordinary’ potatoes.

Leading the media celebrations is the Independent newspaper (and, as ever, the pro-GM BBC Today programmewhich is, this week running an increasingly bizarre series of puff pieces promoting GMOs to its readers.

According to reports researchers at the Sainsbury Laboratory, a government-funded (in other words, taxpayer-funded) research institute, part of the John Innes Centre (JIC), based in Norwich, have already conducted field tests on a GM potato, which were highly publicised but had only limited success. They are now touting plans to insert up to 8 genes into commercially-popular varieties of potato, such as the highly blight-prone Maris Piper or Desiree, in order to fight the late-blight pathogen, Phytophthora infestans.

Field trials are expected to be announced in June after the general election – a cynical move which aims to get around the fact that the majority of people in the UK simply don’t want to see us eating or planting GMOs. The intention is that the UK will be planting the GM spud by June 2016. Indeed whichever party gets in, or whatever shape the new Government takes, after the election plans for bringing GMOs to the UK are expected to be pushed ahead.

A complex problem

Potato blight is a serious problem which causes losses £60 million worth of potatoes in the UK each year and crop losses worth of billions worldwide each year. But it is not a problem caused by lack of GMOs. Instead it is caused by a combination things, though temperature and moisture are perhaps the most important environmental factors affecting its development.

For instance, late blight is a complex pathogen that varies its predominant strains in from year to year. It is also highly influenced by the weather which results in “good” and “bad” blight years.

What all this means is that,on multiple levels, how we farm matters as much as what we farm. A wide range of commercially popular blight tolerant potato varieties already exist (see below) – some of them highly field resistant – and so neither GMOs nor widespread insurance spraying of fungicides are necessary.

A very expensive potato

Here’s what you may not have known about the so-called super-spud.

You can’t eat it The potato with 8 additional genetic modifications that give it super powers does not exist. Even if the scientists manage to successfully insert this genetic material into a Maris Piper or a Desiree you won’t be seeing it on your table any time soon. Development time could b 8-10 years.

But you are already paying for it According to the group GeneWatch £3.2 million of taxpayers’ money has already been spent trying to develop a GM blight-resistant potato. Some £750,000 of public money was put into 3 years of field trials for the blight resistant Desiree potato which was trialled in the UK in 2011-12. Although the trial was hailed as a success in the media the researchers at Sainsbury’s lab now admit that inserting just one gene is not enough “because the pathogen tends to become resistant”. So they are now looking for a further tranche of taxpayers’ money to develop more complicated (but not necessarily better) strains of GM potatoes.

It puts no money back into the public purse because the patents for these publicly-funded potatoes are is held by private individuals.

It could ultimately make blight control more difficult Because they are so expensive to develop, the blight resistance will only be put into a couple of varieties of potatoes. This encourages the kind of monoculture farming that leaves crop more vulnerable to pests and disease.

It’s a high risk investment, because there is every chance that such a complicated GMO spud will fail either in the lab or in the field and never reach our tables.

It doesn’t address the real problem We need to move beyond the narrow GM thinking to make the real changes needed to make our farming and food system more sustainable. Pesticide reductions require agroecological thinking not techno fixes and farmers need support to make blight resistant varieties more popular with consumers.

Better alternatives

Here’s the only thing you really need to know about the alternatives: Naturally blight resistant varieties exist and can be planted right now.

One of the biggest justifications for using GM to develop mew plant varieties is that conventional breeding methods as ‘slow and inefficient’. But the fact is that due the high failure rate in the lab and in the field, conventional breeding can, provide solutions faster (see also our article Naturally ingenious crops which looks at GM ‘solutions’ to other farming problems).

Sárpo potatoes were first bred in Hungary by the Sárvári family. Sárpo varieties - Mira, Axona and Shona and others – are being further developed by the Sárvári Research Trust, a not-for-profit company based near Bangor in North Wales that has not benefitted from the millions in public money poured into the John Innes Centre’s GM varieties. They are resistant to many types of blight strains and offer a far more comprehensive resistance than this GM potato. In fact a gene from a Sarpo variety was used to develop the first GM ones. The Mira variety is particularly high yielding; Axona varieties are particularly low-input with high resistance to common viruses as well as blight, weed smothering vigour and can be stored over winter without refrigeration and without anti-sprout chemicals).The taste and texture of Sarpo varieties are different from what consumers are used to – they tend towards floury – but in taste tests at the River Cottage the Sarpo Axona was found to make an excellent mash and the Sarpo Shona great chips.

The Agrico cooperative in the Netherlands that are producing good quality blight resistant potatoes which they export to farmers and growers and retailers around the world. Bioselect UK is the organic marketing arm of Agrico UK Ltd, specialising in the development and supply of organic seed potato varieties. It has successfully bred some highly resistant varieties, one of which, called Athlete, is being sold by Marks & Spencer.

Organic box schemes are a good source of sustainable varieties of potatoes. For example, Riverford Organic Farms grow and sell a range of good quality, varieties such as Valor and Orla which have a higher resistance to blight and are ‘good all-rounders’ in taste and vigour.

Finally… a GM potato ‘fun fact’ to consider

One of the earliest studies to show adverse effects from eating GMOs was done using a potato. It was a Desiree.

In the very early days of our infatuation with GMOs, Dr Arpad Pusztai, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and eminent scientist conducted a study where he and his colleagues fed rats either GM or on-GM potatoes.

By late 1997 preliminary results from the rat-feeding experiments were showing totally unexpected and worrying changes in the size and weight of the rat’s body organs. Liver and heart sizes were getting smaller, and so was the brain. There were also indications that the rats’ immune systems were weakening.

When the results were released Pusztai was vilified, his funding withdrawn and he eventually lost his job. Nobody has ever looked at what happens when we eat GM potatoes since and there is no indication that these proposed new ‘super spuds’ will be tested for safe human consumption, before they reach the market – assuming they ever do.

Join the GM Free Me evolution

The government and biotech will continue to push unnecessary and expensive solutions into the marketplace unless we all stand-up, say no and demand an evolution into safer, saner and more sustainable farming. Please take a moment to upload your photo and comment to our visual petition (it’s really quick!). Show the powers that be that REAL PEOPLE have REAL CONCERNS about GMOs that cannot be dismissed. You can use our online form or if you are in a super hurry you can fill in this email form and attach a photo of yourself to add to our gallery.


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