BASF GM potato trial stokes controversy

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Gm, Potato

UK approval for BASF to undertake trials of a GM disease-resistant
potato has met with inevitable opposition.

Defra, the UK's department of environment, food and rural affairs, has given the green light to the trials, due to take place on two sites in England starting in 2007.

It is satisfied that the trials will not result in any adverse effect on human health or the environment. But environmentalists claim that the risk of contamination of the food chain means that the trails are unnecessary and uncalled for.

"These GM trials pose a significant contamination threat to future potato crops,"​ said Friends of the Earth GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow.

"We don't need GM potatoes and there is no consumer demand for them. The government should promote safe and sustainable agriculture, not this half-baked GM potato plan."

Friends of the Earth claims that BASF applied to trial the GM potatoes in Ireland last year, but pulled out because of the strict conditions imposed by the Irish authorities. It says that the conditions imposed by Defra are not as strict and could lead to GM contamination of the food chain.

But BASF believes that the trials are not only safe, but could lead to a number of advantages. The GM potato developed by BASF is resistant to late potato blight. This can be a significant disease problem for UK potato growers, who normally combat it by applying chemical fungicides.

The purpose of the research trials is to test the effectiveness of the potatos resistance against UK strains of the disease. Similar trials are already underway in three other European countries.

The BASF application has been evaluated by the independent expert group the Advisory Committee of Releases to the Environment (ACRE). "Our top priority on this issue remains protecting consumers and the environment, and a rigorous independent assessment has concluded that these trials do not give rise to any safety concerns,"​ said environment minister Ian Pearson.

"Based on the independent advice we have received, appropriate conditions have been specified for the conduct of the trials, and our GM Inspectorate will ensure that these are met. As the GM potatoes are being grown for research purposes they will not be used for food or animal feed."

Reflecting ACRE's advice, precautionary conditions have been attached to the statutory consent for the trials. Defra insists that these conditions will ensure that GM material does not persist at the trial sites.

The issue of GM approval within the EU is one of the most contentious in agriculture. The recent announcement that US authorities had traced amounts of unapproved genetically modified (GM) food in samples of rice prompted the EU to clamp down on all imports from the US.

The immediacy of this action illustrated the stringent controls the EU has in place to guard against unauthorised products entering the food chain, and also reflected consumer fears over the technology.

However, many biotech firms believe that the European market has a potentially lucrative future. The WTO ruled earlier this year that the EU and six member states had broken trade rules by barring entry to GM crops and foods.

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