A Tale of Two Spuds
Take a look at this picture - a tale of two potatoes.
The one on the left is a standard Desiree potato - very good for roasting and chips, but sadly somewhat prone to fungal infection.
The sorry looking excuse for a spud on the right is a wild relative of the Desiree which is actually poisonous to eat, but does have one highly desirable characteristic: It's developed a natural resistance to the fungal infections that cause late blight.
You can see where this is going, and if scientists at the John Innes Centre near Norwich had managed to cross these two by conventional plant breeding - producing a potato with all the culinary qualities of the Desiree, but with the added benefit of hardy resiliance - it would be hailed as some sort of super spud.
But that's not quite what has happened. The researchers, led by Professor Jonathan Jones, have managed to cross the potatoes, but they did it by genetic modification - isolating the genes that confer blight resistance from two species of wild potatoes, and inserting them into the genome of a conventional Desiree variety.
The results - in the shape of 300 genetically modified potato plants - are being sown on an experimental plot behind the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre today.
"It's really very simple," says Professor Jones, "We identified a gene for late blight resistance in a wild potato from South America, and used biotechnology to sieve-out that gene from the 30,000 other genes in the plant, and then transfer it to the cultivated potato variety".
The stakes are high. Late blight is the disease that caused the Irish potato famine, and on average UK farmers spend between £30m and £50m a year spraying crops up to 15 times with chemical fungicides. If the trial goes well, Professor Jones says, it could lead to the development of new varieties that wouldn't need all those expensive treatments.
It's a sign of the times that as the plants go in the ground a 15ft wire fence bristling with CCTV cameras is also being erected around the trial plot. Previous GM crop trials have been targeted by environmental campaigners who claim the risks associated with genetically modified foods are simply too high.
Speaking on the programme this morning Friends of the Earth's Kirtana Chandrasekaran said the real reason why GM crops had not taken off in the UK was because they offered no benefit to consumers, issues around food safety remained unresolved, and similar advances could be achieved through conventional plant breeding at a fraction of the cost.