GM potato field tests begin at Norfolk location


A field of genetically modified (GM) potatoes is being planted in area in Norfolk.

The aim is to test if genes from two wild varieties can protect plants from late blight, the disease that caused the Irish potato famine.

"We have isolated genes from wild species that confer resistance," said Prof Jonathan Jones from the Sainsbury Laboratory at Norwich Science Park.

Two separate lines of potato have been grown to test genes in a field setting.

The two sets to be planted out will be monitored to see if the genes work against late blight present naturally in the UK.

Wild South American species are inedible and produce tiny tubers, so scientists sieved out just the genes of interest from the 30,000 or so in their genomes.

Following vandalism of GM crops at the site, £20,000 has been spent on a security fence and cameras.

Food chain ban

Prof Jones said: "UK potato growers spray crops 10-15 times a year and in 2007 Europe ran out of chemicals to control blight, it was such a wet year.

"If our research is successful, this will cut chemicals and carbon dioxide generated by the use of tractors."

Curently two more field trials are being carried out - on potatoes in West Yorkshire by the University of Leeds and in Cambridgeshire on Maize by Bayer Crop Science of Germany.

A GM potato variety was recently cleared by the EU to go on sale for use as a source of starch and for animal feed but it was banned from the human food chain.

Modified crops have been attacked in the past and in 2000 a field of maize being grown in Norfolk was trashed by 28 campaigners including Lord Peter Melchett of Greenpeace.

The case against them was thrown out when it came to court.

Any applications for field trials of GM crops have to be submitted to the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

An independent committee appopinted by the Food Standards Agency then takes a precautionary approach to assess if the crops pose any threat to people or the environment.

GM bacteria

Although genetically modified crops are not allowed to enter the human food chain in the European Union some products benefit from the technology.

Rennet used in the manufacture of hard cheese traditionally came from the stomachs of calves.

But demand was so great that the enzyme chymosin which forms the rennet is now made using genetically modified bacteria.

Milk herds and laying hens can also be fed on genetically modified materials.

Greenpeace and the Soil Association who support organically produced foods remain concerned about GM technology.

Many people are also concerned about the cross transfer of animal and plant genes because it goes against nature.

This would never happen in the natural environment but scientists believe it can bring benefits.

Kirtana Chandrasekaran from Friends of the Earth commenting on the GM crop trials said: "The Government is wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money by forging ahead with unnecessary and unpopular GM crops trials, which threaten local farmers with contamination.

"The largest scientific farming study every conducted saw no clear role for GM crops in feeding the world - and their roll-out in other countries reveals that they benefit big business, not local farmers or hungry people."

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