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Are Potatoes the Path to GM Acceptance in the EU? - 25th February 2014

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Tuesday 25th February 2014.
Sarah Mikesell - TheCropSite Senior Editor

Sarah Mikesell
Senior Editor



Are Potatoes the Path to GM Acceptance in the EU?

Greetings from the wonderfully warm state of Texas! I’m in San Antonio, Texas for the start of Commodity Classic – the annual association meeting for US corn, soy, wheat and sorghum growers. It’s a good 50+ degrees warmer here than in Chicago, and I started peeling off the winter coat as soon as I was off the plane.

In news this week... a three-year GM research trial in the UK has shown boosted resistance of potatoes to late blight, a potato farmer’s most important and seriously damaging disease, without deploying fungicides.

Potato blight costs British farmers £60 million ($1 billion) to control annually. Globally, it costs the industry £3.5 billion ($5.8 billion) in losses each year.

The trial was conducted with Desiree potatoes to address the challenge of building resistance to blight in potato varieties with popular consumer and processing characteristics.

In 2012, the third year of the trial, the potatoes experienced ideal conditions for late blight. Non-transgenic Desiree plants were 100 per cent infected by early August, while all GM plants remained fully resistant to the end of the experiment.

GM-potatoes also won big in yield, with tubers from each block of 16 plants weighing 6-13 kg while the non-GM tubers weighed 1.6-5 kg per block.

The introduced gene, from a South American wild relative of potato, triggers the plant’s natural defense mechanisms by enabling it to recognize the pathogen. Cultivated potatoes possess around 750 resistance genes but in most varieties, late blight is able to elude them.

“Breeding from wild relatives is laborious and slow and by the time a gene is successfully introduced into a cultivated variety, the late blight pathogen may already have evolved the ability to overcome it,” said Professor Jonathan Jones from The Sainsbury Laboratory. “With new insights into both the pathogen and its potato host, we can use GM technology to tip the evolutionary balance in favor of potatoes and against late blight.”

In northern Europe, farmers typically spray a potato crop 10-15 times, or up to 25 times in a bad year. Researchers hope to replace chemical control with genetic control.

Researchers are continuing to identify multiple blight resistance genes that will be difficult for blight to simultaneously overcome. Their research will also allow resistance genes to be prioritized that will be more difficult for the pathogen to evade.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) mainly funded the project for £750,000 ($1.25 million) and spent an additional £46,000 ($77,000) to secure the field site against anti-GM campaigners.

Could this be a path for UK or European acceptance of GM crops?

Have a great week!

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