Student - September 13, 2007

Miracle potato still in the pipeline

The ‘fine example of Wageningen's capacity to innovate and of forward-looking research’ that the prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende mentioned is still a thing of the future. At the opening of Forum last week the premier said, ‘a team of researchers here at Wageningen has made a big breakthrough: they have developed a breed of potato that is resistant to potato blight.’ But these Phytophthora-resistant potatoes are still a thing of the future.

The word ‘breakthrough’ suggests good news for potato growers, particularly in the Netherlands where environmental issues are high on the agenda. Conventional potato growers spray their crop ten to fifteen times a year to control the Phytophthora infestans oomycete, which causes the potato disease. This costs Dutch growers 130 million euros a year.

Dr Anton Haverkort, programme coordinator of the DuRPh project (Development of Durable Phytophthora Resistance) at Plant Research International, is the source of the news. ‘I was called by Balkenende’s speechwriter and I explained the situation as clearly as possible. We don’t have a Phytophthora resistant potato yet, but in a couple of years it should be possible if our research is successful. We are building gene cassettes into existing potato varieties to create sustainable resistance. In the next few years we should have obtained proof of principle, and after that we’ll still need about five years of field trials.’

Haverkort himself did see a breakthrough in Balkenende’s speech, however. ‘Although he didn’t actually use the term genetic modification, we are talking about a gm potato. It’s a breakthrough to hear a member of the government talking in positive terms about this.’ Haverkort is in favour of a public debate on the choice between ‘polluting’ or ‘gm’ potatoes. Technically speaking the resistant potatoes are not transgenic but cisgenic. They do not contain genes from other species, but only from wild potato varieties, which can be crossed with domesticated relatives without genetic modification.