News - June 1, 2011

Wageningen trial field in Belgium damaged

Activists from the Field Liberation Movement (FLM) destroyed a field of cis-gene potatoes grown for tests by Wageningen UR, in Wetteren in Belgium on 29 May.

Phytophtora on a potato plant .
The field contained several different potato varieties which develop resistance to the Phytophtera potato blight by building in resistance genes from wild potato species.

The trial is an initiative of the Flemish department of agriculture, the Flemish institute for biotechnology, the university of Gent and Wageningen UR. Potatoes are being developed which have several resistance genes to protect them against the persistent and much-feared Phytophtera potato blight. At the testing site there was also a potato variety which was developed by BASF. Field tests should show whether the new species are vulnerable to the pathogen out in the open.

Currently, Belgian crop farmers - just like their Dutch neighbours - have to spray their crops with pesticides about ten times a year to keep the pest under control. The new GM potato would save 1 million kilos of pesticides per year, and another 50 million euros' worth of harvest damage, says a spokesman for the Flemish institute for biotechnology. To achieve comparable results through traditional plant breeding would entail at least 20 years of breeding.

The activists are afraid, however, that multinationals such as Monsanto and BASF will gain the rights to this new potato species, at the expense of farmers. But the Flemish farmers' union rejects this argument. In fact, says a spokesman, the genetic material will be the property of the universities, which will license several plant breeding companies to use it.

In Belgium there is great indignation about what the activists have done. Gent professor of Philosophy Johan Braeckman compares the campaigners with the Luddites who attacked the first agricultural machines in England in the early 19 th century. Other organizations called on the Flemish prime minister to engage in a public debate about the future of agriculture.
Wageningen UR has another test field for cis gene potatoes in the North-east polder, in the Netherlands. Researcher Bert Lotz went there last month to engage in a discussion with opponents of the tests who had set up a protest camp there.