Despite the decision by the European Union last week to approve the cultivation of a GM potato, plant scientist Eoin Lettice argues that consumers will only accept the technology when it provides tangible benefits for them
A survey suggests that a substantial proportion of shoppers would buy GM food if it provided extra health benefits. Photograph: Guardian
Last week's decision by the European Commission to allow genetically modified potato varieties to be grown in some European Union countries concludes a 13-year campaign by the German chemical company BASF.
Ordinary potatoes produce two kinds of starch, but the GM potato Amflora only produces the economically useful form, amylopectin, which is used in the paper, textiles and adhesives industries. Production of the uneconomic form, amylase, has been turned off by genetic modification, so the useful starch doesn't need to be separated from the useless form during processing.
BASF says that while starch from its GM potato will not be used in human food, it may use the product in animal feed.
What particularly worries opponents of GM technology, however, is that Amflora carries an extra gene that makes the potato resistant to the antibiotics neomycin and kanamycin.
Why is it there? GM plants are produced by inserting novel genes into individual plant cells and then growing the cells into whole plants in the laboratory. Gene insertion can be achieved by using a bacterium to "ferry" it into the cell or by blasting it in using a gene gun. Alternatively, the tough plant cell wall can be stripped off and the gene can be inserted into this "naked" cell.
Regardless of the technique used, not all of the plant cells will take up the novel gene and incorporate it into their own DNA – perhaps just five cells out of every thousand. Tagging the novel gene with an antibiotic resistance gene allows modified cells to be singled out, because they will be resistant to a specific range of antibiotics.
This has been a source of concern for campaigners, but in June 2009, the European Food Safety Authority ruled that marker genes like this are unlikely to cause adverse effects on human health and the environment. As a result of limitations in sampling and detection it was unable to be conclusive, but the authority emphasised that it considered Amflora to be safe.
BASF first submitted its Amflora potato for approval in 1996. However, an EU-wide moratorium on GM between 1998 and 2004 delayed the process substantially.
When the potato was resubmitted for approval after the moratorium ended, progress was so slow that in 2008 BASF filed an action against the EC in the European Court of First Instance for "failure to act" and decide on the issue despite the European Food Safety Authority saying in two separate reports that the product was as safe as any conventional potato.
The company claimed that the previous commissioner, Stavros Dimas, "unjustifiably delayed" the decision on several occasions.
Now, within weeks of stepping into the role, the new European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, John Dalli, has given the green light for planting to begin. BASF says the potatoes will be grown in Germany and the Czech Republic this year, and in Sweden and the Netherlands in 2011.
Opponents of GM technology have been quick to denounce the decision, with Greenpeace saying that Dalli has "steamrolled" a decision through. Given that the potato variety in question has undergone 13 years of testing since its first submission, this analogy might be better applied to the lumbering decision-making process in Europe rather than this final decisive move by the new commissioner.
At the root of this issue is consumers' wariness about GM foodstuffs and GM organisms in general. Consumers genuinely do not see the worth of GM products, which is why there is a need to move beyond crops that confer benefits to industry and growers alone towards second-generation GM that produces added health and nutritional benefits for consumers.
Hans Kast, president and CEO of BASF Plant Science, is on record as saying that the Amflora potato could potentially earn European farmers an extra €100 million annually. The company has also pointed out that it is losing between €20m and €30m in licence income for every lost cultivation season.
Perhaps I'm being presumptuous, but I can't imagine many Irish or European consumers lying awake at night worrying about lost revenues for BASF. What Irish consumers are interested in, however, are real and tangible benefits from their foods.
In a survey in 2005 by Ireland's Agriculture and Food Development Authority, 42% of consumers questioned indicated that they would consider purchasing a hypothetical GM-produced yoghurt if it had anti-cancer properties. In the same study, 44% of consumers said that they would use a GM-produced dairy spread if it had anti-cancer properties.
"Second generation" GM crops also have a role to play in developing countries, with the development of fortified foodstuffs such as "golden rice" to counteract malnutrition. A new variety of Golden Rice has been engineered to produce even more pro-vitamin A to combat vitamin A deficiency.
Undoubtedly, some British and Irish consumers, in common with their European counterparts, are reluctant to consume GM crops and see them growing in their countries. The focus of industry on benefits to the grower and seed producer rather than on consumer-centred benefits will prolong this reluctance and hamper the innovation in our food and agriculture industries that is so badly needed.
Eoin Lettice is a lecturer in the department of zoology, ecology and plant science at University College Cork, Ireland. He specialises in the control of plant pests and diseases