Genetically Modified Potatoes: Making Slow Inroads
Limited acceptance has meant genetically modified potatoes aren’t gaining much ground in the marketplace, but research continues into the possible benefits of their use in potato–growing regions around the world.
In the past decade, a number of different regions around the globe have developed genetically modified potatoes, but slow acceptance in the marketplace has meant new varieties often remain on the sidelines. Despite this, hope remains that GM potatoes will one day become valuable to end users, possibly in the near future.
With that in mind, researchers continue work on finding new benefits of GM potatoes. For example, this past summer, Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority of Ireland, received approval from the country’s Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the impact of GM blight-resistant potatoes on the environment.
While Teagasc did not develop the GM material they are testing, they were able to acquire this potato line from their colleagues at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands.
In 2010, BASF Plant Science received approval by the EU commission for Amflora, a starch potato that only contains pure amylopectin. In early 2012, however, BASF announced that it was stopping its development and commercialization.
Researchers Remain Determined
According to Ewen Mullins, senior research officer with Teagasc Crops Research Centre based in Carlow, Ireland, the centre’s GM potato research will take them well into 2015 before it is completed. The work is being done as part of a 22-partner program known as AMIGA (Assessing and Monitoring the Impacts of Genetically Modified Plants on Agro-Ecosystems) and is funded by the European Commission representing 15 European Union countries.
“As we are part of AMIGA, we have been able to acquire this particular cisgenic potato line, which has durable blight resistance as a result of the insertion of a wild potato gene from Solanum venturii,” explains Mullins. “Our field work is an environmental study designed to study the impact of such a resistant gene on Irish populations of blight and also on soil microbes.”
Mullins is particularly interested in seeing how blight will respond to the venturii gene. “Will blight evolve and how quickly could this happen?” asks Mullins. “This is very important for any future integrated pest management strategy that would be adopted should a GM potato line ever get to market.”
Teagasc does not have plans to complete any other field-based studies after this GM study. However, similar work involving blight resistance is being conducted in the Netherlands and there have been separate studies completed in Belgium and in the United Kingdom.
In Canada, research is also limited as GM potatoes are not available for public testing. According to Vikram Bisht, a plant pathologist with Manitoba Agriculture, Foods and Rural Initiatives based in Carman, Man., there has simply been a lack of marketability. “When GM potatoes were initially being commercialized, growers discovered that acceptance within the marketplace was limited, which led to a chain reaction within the industry,” explains Bisht. “While there may be labs conducting research around the world, GM potatoes are not commercially accessible. If a quick-service restaurant will not accept GM—the marketability is very limited.”
In Europe, BASF announced in early 2012 that it was moving the headquarters of its Plant Science unit to Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and halting the development and commercialization of all GM products targeted solely for cultivation in Europe. This included several GM starch potatoes, a potato resistant to the disease late blight, and a late blight resistant starch potato. According to Britta Stellbrink, spokesperson for BASF Plant Science based in Limburgerhof, Germany, the company intends to focus on the attractive markets in North and South America for the development of GM products.
“We see plant biotechnology as a key technology for the 21st century,” explains Stellbrink. “However, there is still a lack of acceptance for this technology in many parts of Europe. Therefore, it does not make business sense to invest any longer in products exclusively for cultivation there as it was the case with our potato projects. ”
“[Genetically modified] corn and soybeans in North America and many other countries have been accepted so I’m not sure why potatoes have hit a roadblock. If quick-service restaurants and consumers begin to accept GM potatoes, there will be a change in the marketplace.” —Vikram Bisht
As for whether GM potatoes may see greater acceptance in the near future, Mullins is unsure. “It is hard to say. The feedback we have received to date is that the public wants to know more about the technology.”
However, he notes that the blight resistant potato is something the Irish people appear to be interested in. “They can relate to this issue because of the impact blight has had in the country, and because we love our spuds. There is also a growing awareness among the public about the level of fungicide usage that exists to bring the national crop to market. This has people asking about alternatives,” explains Mullins.
Bisht also believes that GM potatoes may one day make it to the marketplace if cultural perceptions change. “We don’t know yet what will happen, he says. “[Genetically modified] corn and soybeans in North America and many other countries have been accepted so I’m not sure why potatoes have hit a roadblock. If quick-service restaurants and consumers begin to accept GM potatoes, there will be a change in the marketplace.”
Stellbrink maintains perceptions around GM products are changing slowly, but BASF does not perceive opportunities for the commercial cultivation of GM plants in Europe in the mid-term . “Today, imported GM products are mainly used for feed in Europe,” explains Stellbrink. “But there are many ongoing laboratory projects and also we are continuing our industry-leading research at our sites in Germany and Belgium. There is a global demand for more crops to be resistant to diseases and pests as well as crops with higher yield and improved drought resistance like the new Genuity DroughtGard Hybrids we have developed in collaboration with Monsanto.”
GM Potato Lines Halted
In 1995, Monsanto completed U.S. regulatory authorizations for NewLeaf potato, a Russet Burbank improved using biotechnology to provide protection from the Colorado potato beetle. Canadian authorization was completed in 1996. The NewLeaf potato used naturally-occurring bacteria found in the soil known as Bacillus thuringiensis to provide in-plant protection from the Colorado potato beetle. In 2001, Monsanto made the decision to focus its biotechnology program on its key row crops. Ongoing activities involving potatoes were scaled back. Sales and marketing of the NewLeaf potato varieties were suspended, but the products remain fully approved in the United States and Canada.
In 2010, BASF Plant Science received approval by the EU commission of Amflora, a starch potato that only contains pure amylopectin. Amflora is a variety of the medium-late to late maturity group with stable, high-starch contents in the form of pure amylopectin and has medium tuber yields. In early 2012, however, BASF announced that it was stopping development and commercialization of all products targeted solely for cultivation in Europe, including GM starch potatoes (Amflora, Amadea and Modena), a potato resistant to the disease late blight called Fortuna, and a blight resistant starch potato.