Thursday, April 22, 2010

BASF GM Potato: The second GM crop approved in EU for planting

After 13 years of battle, BASF was finally successful in getting approval for its GM potato, Amflora for planting in the EU. This is the second crop approved by EU Commission. The first was Monsanto’s MON810 trait for corn that protects it from European corn borer.

Amflora will have a big impact in the European starch industry where Europe produces 2 million tones of potato starch annually. Amflora is genetically modified to produce 98% amylopectin compared to the conventional variety which produces a mixture of 80% amylopectin and 20% amylase. The starch industry only uses the amylopectin for the production of paper, textiles and adhesives. This will offer a big saving to the industry where it eliminates to need to separate the two types of starch.

Germany and Czech Republic might be the first countries in Europe to plant this potato with cultivation expected to begin in spring this year.

The road to success if often not sweet and that was the case for Amflora. BASF first applied for approval in Sweden in 1996. However, between 1996 and 2004 there was a moratorium on approvals of GM crops in Europe. When EU modified its regulation, BASF again submitted the application for cultivation in 2003 and for the use of food and feed in 2005. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that Amflora was as safe for the humans, animals and the environment as conventional potatoes but politicians created hurdles for its approval. They were not able to make decision for or against its cultivation. In 2009, EFSA reiterated its stand on the safety of Amflora. And finally the approval came on 2 March 2010.

However, the battle is not over yet with activists raising their usual concerns. The first concern is that Amflora contains an antibiotic resistance marker gene, and the activists claim it could give rise to bacterial strains resistant to antibiotics used to control infections in human. This has been addressed by EFSA in 2004, which concluded that the risk of transferring the antibiotic resistance from plant to bacteria is remote. Furthermore, resistance to the antibiotics used as marker, in this case, kanamycin, could already be found in bacteria in animal and human intestines.

The second concern of activists is the possibility of transgene (the foreign gene in Amflora) dissemination to other potatoes. The spreading of transgene from Amflora to conventional potato is unlikely as potatoes do not cross-pollinate with other potatoes to reproduce. As such transgene movement by pollen is very limited and escaped wild type potatoes have rarely been observed in Europe. Moreover, potatoes are harvested before they produce seeds and this will reduce the risk of inadvertently persisting in the environment.

In spite of the concerns being not too substantial, measures will be taken to ensure risks are minimized. Farmers who want to cultivate Amflora will have to sign a contract with BASF to ensure the potatoes will be physically separated from potatoes for food or feed uses during planting, cultivation, harvest, storage and handling. The tubers will be delivered to designated starch factories within closed system. These farmers will not be able to grow conventional potatoes in the same field the year following GM potatoes and the fields will be monitored the following growing season to destroy volunteers (plants from previous season that grow in the following growing season and become a weed).

Will this potato flourish in Europe? We will wait and see.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

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