GM potatoes no one needs

June 2014
Picture of hands full of potatoes
Photo from Creative Commons
In America, 'acceptance' of GM foods has been guaranteed  by blindfolding the public.  Attempts to reveal the GM food in their shopping baskets with labelling have, so far, been brushed aside with cash.  The deep coffers of the biotech industry have enabled top-notch PR, lobbying and clever marketing to keep American consumers compliant.

With the exception of animal feed (where farmers are allowed to know what they are feeding their livestock but the end-consumer isn't), GM foods are labelled in Europe and acceptance is effectively zero.  However, the UK Government in league with ambitious scientists has found other ways of using cash to shoe-horn GM down our throats.

Using Government money (your taxes) scientists at the Sainsbury Laboratory are developing GM potatoes.

The project is based on the premise that we have a small number of spuds on the UK market which are perfect for their purpose.  Perfect, that is, except for their extreme susceptibility to devastating fungal infestations, especially in wet (British) weather.  Because of this, UK potato farmers typically spray their crops 15 times (and up to 25 times) with fungicides.  This compacts the soil and adds substantially to their production costs and to green house gas emissions. 

The answer to this stack of problems is to develop blight-resistant versions of the perfect potatoes.

Because, historically, it has taken 30 - 50 years to ingress blight-resistance genes from wild potatoes by conventional breeding, the only practical answer is to put the wild genes straight into the perfect potatoes by genetic transformation.

So far, with over £3 million of taxpayers' money spent, and input from an undisclosed number of laboratories plus an undisclosed number of years in development, a proof-of-concept GM potato with a single blight-resistance gene has been achieved.  It remains for another few functional genes to be added in for effective, sustainable disease control.

The creation of GM perfect potatoes clearly isn't going to be as quick as it sounds.

Moreoever, the necessary testing of the GM potatoes in the field takes time, and can't be short-circuited: the Sainsbury Lab's small-scale field trials ran for three years, but during that time only one year presented the blight-friendly weather conditions needed to make the trial valid.  Even without any human or environmental safety testing and no major technical setbacks (unlikely), the development of GM super-resistant spuds is going to be measured in decades. 

Given that conventional breeding, which was so slow in the past, could now be speeded up enormously using our modern knowledge of genes (for example, using maker-assisted gene selection).  The old way with the help of modern techniques might be as quick, or quicker.

GM seems a long and expensive route for a short-cut.

As for the first premise, no one's questioning why we're keeping ourselves chained to so few varieties of potato.  It's the lack of genetic diversity and the large scale of modern agriculture which promote blight.  It would be simpler, and much quicker, cheaper and more effective to change the potatoes than to impose GM on the existing self-damaging system.

Conventional potatoes which are stably resistant to multiple strains of blight and available in a range of varieties to suit all purposes are not an unachievable nor hopelessly futuristic goal: they've already been bred.  This has been achieved with no government funding.  Their only flaw is that they're not the ones we're hooked on. 

As the scientists who developed them pointed out, their potatoes “are not yet widely accepted on the market”.  GM Watch have stated the obvious: the only thing these potatoes “really lack is marketing to consumers”.

Making a product by a difficult and expensive route when it's actually already available might not make sense to the layman.  However, biotech scientists and government economists have their eye on the cash their GM potatoes with patented genes will generate.  So much so that the novel spuds have been cleverly 'marketed' to the Government grant providers to the tune of over £3 million.  And that's only the first stage: a lot more funds will have to be ploughed in to get anywhere near a commercial product.  After that, more money will be needed for the clever marketing to persuade an unwilling public to eat GM chips and mash.

A bit of clever marketing and further development of the existing conventionally-bred blight resistant potatoes would be decades faster, would be guaranteed acceptable to the consumer, and would cost a tiny fraction of what may be currently disappearing down the GM drain.


The impression is inescapable that scientists are re-inventing a GM-wheel with patents and profits attached, at your expense.

WHAT YOU CAN DO - Make it clear to the Government in Westminster that you have no intention, ever, of eating GM potatoes, and ask please could they spend you taxes more sensibly.

  • Jonathan D. G. Jones, et al., 2014, Elevating crop disease resistance with cloned genes, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 17.02.14
  • Field trial of late blight resistant potatoes Q&A,, accessed April 2014
  • Bunny Guinness, Dig around for the best-tasting potatoes, Telegraph 12.02.14
  • GM Watch comment on GM potato research, GM Watch 17.02.14
  • GM potato research a waste of money, Genewatch UK, 17.02.14
  • GM blight-resistant potatoes: Another GMO white elephant, GM Watch 21.12.13
  • GM trial to reduce agrochemicals, Sainsbury Laboratory Press Release, February 2014
  • A. J. Haverkort, et al., 2009, Applied Biotechnology to Combat Late Blight in Potto Caused by Phytophthora Infestans

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