GENET archive


APPROVAL: Genetically altered potato raises opposition in Europe

                                  PART 1

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SOURCE: International Herald Tribune, France

AUTHOR: Elisabeth Rosenthal


DATE:   20.07.2007

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LIMBURGERHOF, Germany: When Timo Böhme, a plant scientist, pulls up the cluster of dirt-encrusted potatoes from a tidy field here, he cradles them like a precious baby. For his employer, the German chemical giant BASF, these unassuming golden orbs, called Amflora potatoes, are the culmination of nearly 20 years of research and hold the promise of immense future profits. But not just yet.

Amflora potatoes, likely to become the first genetically modified crop in the past decade to be approved for growth in Europe, have become the unlikely poster child in the angry debate over such products on the Continent.

The European Commission now says it will approve the potato ”probably this fall,” even though European ministers have twice been deadlocked on approval in the past eight months, with only a minority voting in favor. According to European Union procedures, ”the ministers have not been able to take a decision, so we will have to reaffirm our earlier opinion to recommend it,” said Barbara Helferrich, spokeswoman for the European Commission’s Environment Directorate.

But European environmental groups are critical of Amflora potatoes, saying they could release dangerous genes into the environment; approving Amflora would make ”a mockery of EU law,” said Marco Contiero, an expert on genetically modified organisms at Greenpeace in Brussels.

Still, perhaps the biggest hurdle for Amflora is the visceral popular reaction against genetically modified crops on a continent whose food culture is ancient and treasured.

”I just don’t like the idea,” said Monika Stahl, 31, waiting for a bus with a sack of fresh vegetables in Mannheim, just 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, from the Amflora field. ”I worry about safe food and about the environment. I have children and worry about them.”

In one sense, the supreme irony is that Amflora is not a food at all. Although it looks, feels and smells like any other spud, each potato is actually a genetically engineered factory for amylopectin, a starch used to make glossy paper coatings, clothing finishes and adhesive cement.

Normal potatoes combine amylopectin and amylose; the gene for amylose is turned off in Amflora potatoes, which taste terrible, and will never be turned into french fries or a potato salad.

”You would think that this approval would have been easy since this potato has no seeds, no wild relatives to cross with in Europe, and only industrial use,” said Ralf-Michael Schmidt, vice president of BASF. ”But it didn’t turn out that way.”

Only 1 percent of the world’s genetically modified food is grown in Europe. In contrast, 55 percent of the world’s acreage in genetically modified crops is in the United States, where there is no distinction made between genetically modified and traditional varieties. Between 1998 and 2004, the EU had a moratorium on the approval of new genetically modified crops and food, so experts could study the risks involved. Under pressure from the World Trade Organization and the United States, that was lifted.

The European Commission has been under enormous pressure to open its doors to crops like this ever since a WTO decision in 2006 that made banning genetically modified crops tantamount to an illegal trade barrier.

But if the approval process for industrial Amflora has proved a challenge - BASF first filed an application to grow the potatoes in 1994 - the road will certainly be far more arduous for other planned genetically modified crops, since they do involve plants intended for food or animal feed. ”That will be a much tougher sell,” Helferrich said. Indeed, BASF has a second application for Amflora pending that would allow the potato residue after starch extraction to be used as animal feed.

Even Germany, which has favored the approval of Amflora for industrial use, would not support that application, said Wolfgang Köhler, head of the unit for gene technology at the German Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection. He said: ”I’m very doubtful we could vote in favor for food and feed because of fears about transmission” of genes into the environment or food supply.

He noted that more than 70 percent of Germans say they do not want genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in their food and the German food industry ”does everything it can to avoid using this stuff.”

Polls by the European Commission have shown that 80 percent to 90 percent of Europeans distrust genetically modified plants. ”We can authorize as many crops as we want but the bigger problem is to convince people they are safe,” Helferrich said.

In the United States, where genetically modified crops have been grown widely for more than a decade, approvals are left to expert agencies. But in the European Union - where voters and politicians are more passionate about food - such approvals involve a more democratic process.

On a crop-by-crop basis, the scientific recommendations of the European Food Safety Agency are voted on by ministers from the 27 member states. Approvals bounce back and forth and ultimately arrive at the European Commission in Brussels when member states cannot agree.

”As a scientist I have a hard time understanding it, but this is how Europe has chosen to make these decisions,” said Susanne Benner, communications director at BASF. ”But it’s hard when you see an innovative product go through the loops again and again. These decisions are not about science but about politics.”

In February 2006, a scientific review by the European Food Safety Agency concluded that planting Amflora to make starch posed no more risk than planting an ordinary potato. Based on that opinion, Europe’s administrative governing body, the European Commission, recommended approval and passed the application to the Council of Ministers, where it has been voted on twice, first by a council of experts from member states in December and again on Monday by European agriculture ministers. Approval requires a 74 percent majority.

But the two votes were inconclusive, with a huge number of countries abstaining on a decision that is a political minefield. The voting is anonymous, but some information leaked out: In the second vote, the agriculture ministers of Italy, Ireland and Austria voted no; Germany and Belgium said yes; and France and Bulgaria abstained.

”These are elected politicians and they have to face the general unease at home about GMOs,” said an EU official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. ”They are passing the buck to the commission, which is between a rock and a hard place on this issue.”

The votes typify Europe’s ambivalence on the matter. Five countries, including Austria and Greece, effectively ban the planting of genetically modified organisms, forbidding types of genetically modified corn that were approved before a European moratorium on cultivation took effect in 1996. While countries cannot ban genetically modified crops outright, they can say that certain crops cause a danger to agriculture in certain areas, for example, because small field size makes mixing between genetically modified and traditional crops inevitable.

A number of other countries and regions have declared themselves ”GM-free zones,” which has no legal force but expresses political will. Germany has many such areas. The new Irish government announced that it intends to make Ireland GM-free.

Ironically, one of the next planned BASF products is a genetically modified potato that resists potato blight, the fungus that caused the notorious Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century. Many experts and even some of Europe’s environment ministers continue to dispute the European food agency’s scientific opinion that Amflora is safe for cultivation. One concern is that it contains a gene for antibiotic resistance that could get out of the potato and into the environment, making bacteria that infect man and beast more difficult to treat.

The European Food Safety Agency concluded that this was unlikely given the closed system in which potato-based starch is produced. But a second dossier from BASF - one that received a positive review from the food safety agency, but has not yet come to a ministers’ vote - involves using leftover Amflora pulp from starch production for animal feed.

”It is a fact that there will be contamination, given the volume of the industry,” said Contiero, of Greenpeace. ”And if animals are eating pulp it certainly will end up in food. This is not just an opinion.”

For the moment, the Amflora field in Limburgerhof still carries a sign: ”TEST FIELD DO NOT ENTER.”

If Amflora is approved, one need only look across a small swath of grass to find the next battleground: two research plots that contain potatoes genetically modified so that they are immune to the blight fungus.

”Those are going to be for food - finally,” said Böhme, the plant scientist. ”And when we submit that for application, that could be an even longer story.”

                                  PART 2

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------


SOURCE: Environment News Servcie, USA



DATE:   19.07.2007

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The Order of the Regional Government of Cusco can be downloaded at:

ORDENANZA REGIONAL N° 010–2007–GRC/CRC: Decalrar Cusco como Región libre de Transgénicos y centro de origen y domesticación de la papa y cultivos nativos importantes.



LIMA, Peru, July 19, 2007 (ENS) - A region of Peru that is a center of potato diversity has banned genetically modified varieties of the tuber. The Cusco regional government’s Order 010 - approved by majority vote on June 21 and made public today - is intended to protect the genetic diversity of thousands of native potato varieties.

The order forbids the sale, cultivation, use and transport of genetically modified potatoes as well as other native food crops.

Potatoes have been cultivated in the Cusco region for thousands of years and helped to feed the ancient Inca empire.

The regional capital Cusco is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas. Along with nearby Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas just named one of the new seven wonders of the world, Cusco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The potato originated in the highlands of South America. Peru and its Andean neighbor countries are the crop’s center of diversity - with more than 4,000 distinct varieties that farmers have developed over generations.

Today, more than 1.2 million people live in the Cusco region. Many are small-scale farmers for whom the potato is their most important crop.

Local farmers’ organizations fear that genes from genetically modified, GM, potatoes could transfer into local varieties and alter their unique properties.

The head of the regional government’s environmental office, Abel Caballero, proposed the ban ”in recognition of the historical, cultural, social and economic importance of the potato and other native crops to the Cusco Region.”

Order 010 was passed in response to proposals submitted by a network of local potato farming communities and Asociacion ANDES, an indigenous nongovernmental organization based in Cusco.

They collaborated on the proposals with the International Institute for Environment and Development, IIED, an independent, non-profit research institute based in London

”This is unprecedented for Peru and a great victory for the communities of Cusco,” says Alejandro Argumedo, director of Asociacion ANDES.

”It will protect the region from contamination with GM varieties that can threaten the diversity of the potatoes and other important native food crops that are critical for food security and the economy,” said Argumedo.

ANDES, the Association for Nature and Sustainable Development, is a non-profit Peruvian indigenous organization that aims to improve the quality of life of Andean indigenous communities. It works by promoting the conservation and sustainable use of indigenous bio-cultural heritage through rights-based conservation development approaches.

The potato is so important in Peru, that in 2005 the Peruvian government declared that May 30 every year would be celebrated as the National Day of the Potato.

The law establishing the National Day states, ”The potato crop is crucial in the history, development, culture and cuisine of Peru, especially for Andean people; its genetic wealth has contributed to global food security.”

”It is necessary to promote and revalue cultural diversity and the ancient technologies related to the crop, and to enhance its consumption,” the law states.

ANDES marks that day with a biocultural festival each year with local food products, local medicinal plants and handicrafts and a soccer tournament. Community members compete in singing, dance, poetry and music, and winners receive prizes donated by the Association ANDES.

”With this decision to keep GM crops out of one of the world’s most diverse centers of potato and other Andean crops, the regional government of Cusco has acted wisely and with courage,” said Dr. Michel Pimbert, director of the sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and livelihoods program at IIED.

”Responding to citizens’ concerns,” says Pimbert, the regional government ”has put issues of food security, human well-being and the environment first and foremost at a time when most national governments persist in their failure to implement international agreements to protect the environment and human rights.”

At the same time, genetically modified potatoes are being developed in Peru. Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima announced July 5 that they have developed the first GM crop variety in Peru - a GM potato that can resist attack by weevils, a major insect pest.

Named Revolucion, the GM potato produces no pollen - it is naturally sterile. The scientists transferred a gene that confers total resistance to the potato tuber moth, Phthorimaea operculella, into the Revolution potato variety. To date the new transgenic potato has been tested only in the laboratory.

Similar potato varieties are undergoing field trials in Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa, and the United States.

To counteract the threat caused by the moth, potato farmers use large amounts of pesticides, particularly toxic phosphorates and carbamates. A study made by CIP in 2006 for the World Bank showed that such pesticide use was particularly damaging to the health of the farmers and harmful to the environment.

”Unfortunately, there are not many alternatives to control this pest,” said Marc Ghislain, who heads the Biotechnology Laboratory at CIP. ”Conventional improvement has not developed very resistant varieties and integrated pest management is not being adopted to control the insects that attack the potato crops.”

One of the most important concerns in genetically engineering crops is the possibility of the genes being transferred into native varieties, a sensitive issue in Peru because it is the center of origin of the potato.

Because of this concern, said Ghislain, the Bt gene has been transferred into a naturally sterile variety to remove any chance of transfer of the gene. In addition, the resistant variety will not be released into the Peruvian market because the government does not yet have regulations governing products obtained from genetic engineering.



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