Wageningen UR is developing an environmentally friendly potato with genes for resistance to a virulent potato disease. It should become clear this year what the chances are of successfully introducing this potato in technophobic Europe. Meanwhile it is very likely to be grown soon in China and the US.
Six years ago, Wageningen UR obtained a grant from the Dutch government to develop the cisgene potato. Since then Haverkort's team have found a handful of resistance genes and will be testing various combinations in field trials over the coming years. In four years' time, when the project ends, the publically funded research results will be made available to companies or government organizations interested in applying them. But the question is: who is going to take it up? Last week the researchers had some good news from the European food safety institute EFSA. The institute declared cisgenesis to be as safe for the environment and for public health as classical breeding methods. The EFSA therefore draws a line between the cisgene potato and transgene crops (GMOs). For the latter there is an expensive and time-consuming procedure for admission into EU countries. The procedure for crops developed by classical breeding methods is much shorter and cheaper. So the institute's statement will make it easier to launch the cisgene potato on the market.
There is little cause for optimism, however. The EFSA advises the EU on food safety issues, but whether European politicians will adopt their advice is another matter. The standpoint of the Netherlands, which favours the acceptance of cisgene crops, is opposed by countries such as Austria and France, which want nothing to do with biotechnology. In general, anti-GMO feelings run high across Europe.
The consumer decides
This technophobic mood is why biotechnology company BASF moved its GMO operations from Germany to the US last month. With this move, the last big biotechnology company with GMO ambitions turned its back on Europe, as other big firms had done ten years earlier. This affects the goals of Dutch breeding companies. For a long time, the logical choice for the marketing of the Wageningen cisgene potato seemed to be Avebe: a potato starch cooperative that has already applied genetic modification in developing a starch potato for industrial use. But for years, this potato has been caught up in an endless safety and admission procedure. Last year, Avebe started collaborating with BASF on the admission procedures. But with the departure of BASF, Avebe will have to rethink its strategy. It is not at all certain that Avebe will be inclined to try again with the Wageningen cisgene potato.
And there are currently no other candidates standing in the wings. Dutch potato breeders are interested but their hands are tied because of public opinion, which does not accept GMOs. ‘With these techniques you can develop potatoes with far better resistance', says Sjefke Allefs of potato producer and supplier Agrico. ‘But around the turn of the century we stopped doing genetic modification. We're treading water now. All the potato breeding companies are saying: we are not going to be the first to start. So it doesn't get off the ground.'
Agrico even forbade its members last year to grow BASF's GM potato. ‘We are a supply cooperative first and foremost, and the consumer plays the decisive role. Our biggest client is Algeria and they don't want any GMOs. We have to be able to guarantee that, and in that case you don't take any risks. The EHEC affair in horticulture has shown us that demand can suddenly tail off without any well-founded reason for rejecting your product.'
Does this mean the Wageningen research funding has been thrown down the drain? No, says potato researcher Bert Lotz. Besides the development of cisgene potatoes, the researchers are also gaining a lot of insight into the causes, the spread and the control of the pathogen. This generates a lot of genetic knowledge, which is useful for classical breeders as well. Lotz: ‘I expect that the cisgene potato will be feasible sometime in the future. But if society doesn't want it, that's it.' His colleague Haverkort is more optimistic. ‘This potato will come eventually. Maybe not in Europe, but there is interest in it in the US, China, Chile and Argentina.' All countries whose agriculture policy is not technophobic.
Safe or unsafe?
Are crops created with the help of genetic modification really dangerous for our health and the environment? Without a doubt, says Greenpeace. You cut genes out of one organism and stick them into another one without knowing where the gene will end up. This causes the new gene to react unpredictably, says campaign leader Herman van Bekkem in Dutch agriculture newspaper Agrarisch Dagblad last month. It is true that the genes enter the genome in a random order, says Rikilt, the food safety institute which assesses GM crops. And that creates a theoretical chance that the crop will make a new protein. Which leads to a small chance that this protein causes an allergic reaction in people, for example. By comparing the GMO with the parent plant, Rikilt can test whether this is actually happening. Contrary to Greenpeace's claims, then, the consequences are calculable.Not only Rikilt but also the European food authority EFSA does extensive safety studies on GM crops. ‘There are already thousands of studies published that show that transgene crops produced under certain conditions pose no danger to public health or to the environment', says Richard Visser, professor of Plant Breeding. After all, even in classical plant breeding, where two parent plants are cross-bred, we do not know exactly where the target gene ends up in the progeny. So here, too, harmful proteins could theoretically be formed. The distinction between techniques - classical, cisgenesis or GMO - is no longer a good way to measure safety, claims Rikilt.The cisgene potato is designed to resist Phytophthora. This oomycete does everything (without any human intervention) that Greenpeace has forbidden: the genome copies junk DNA and mutates constantly to make new proteins that can penetrate the potato. At present, the potato disease can only be combatted with fungicides. There are potato varieties with partial resistance to Phytophthora, but phytopathologists are afraid that this resistance may soon be broken.