A GM potato for Europe?

Here in the European Union (EU), farmers were allowed to grow two crops that had been genetically modified (GM, genetically engineered, GE, biotech). Now they’re only allowed to grow one of them. In July this year I said that whether we’re a no-go zone for GM depends on whether you look at the short game or the long game.

The GM crop that’s still permitted here is an insect-killing Bt crop. It’s a maize (corn, Zea mays) called MON810, YieldGard or MaizeGard from Monsanto. The GM crop that’s no longer permitted here is a potato (Solanum tuberosum) called Amflora or EH92-527-1 growing industrial starch, from BASF Plant Biotechnology.

Arguing about Amflora might affect how the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) turns out for other GM crops in Europe, including Monsanto’s products. Monsanto is part of the TTIP negotiations.

Arguing about Amflora might also affect decisions about another insect-killing Bt crop, the maize called 1507 or Herculex from subsidiaries of DuPont Agriculture and Dow AgroScience. It might affect people’s attitudes to the biofortified rice (Oryza sativa) called Golden Rice from Syngenta Crops & Innovation. And it might affect how the TTIP turns out for the use of antibiotics in medicine and farming. I’ll write about antibiotics later in this blog post. Meanwhile, spuds.

EU farmers received permission to grow Amflora in 2010. Here’s the User Guide to Amflora. That was published by BASF (they made the spud, after all) but in 2012, that company withdrew the variety and stopped seeking European approval for biotech crops. Nobody’s growing Amflora now. In fact, this month the EU General Court judged that the Amflora approval hadn’t been legally valid.

This controversial spud’s starch contrasts with conventional spuds’ starch. Drink potato vodka and say that 😉

Starches are glucose molecules linked together. If they’re linked in long chains the starch is called amylose. If the glucose chains are branched the starch is called amylopectin. Ordinary potato starch is 20% amylose and 80% amylopectin. Amflora’s starch is 100% amylopectin. Human saliva contains an enzyme which starts digesting amylose into glucose before we swallow it. That’s why some potato varieties taste sweet to us.

As the EU-funded GMO Compass explains, genetic engineers had been aiming to make a potato whose starch would be 100% amylopectin. The result was Amflora. Obviously, since it has no amylose, Amflora wouldn’t taste sweet if you ate it. But you could save time and money if you only wanted amylopectin. BASF promoted Amflora as a raw material crop for making strong, glossy paper and yarn, glue or livestock feed. Useful products but there’s no mention of the fact that when you’d extracted the amylopectin, you’d be left with potato pulp. That’s wet mushy stuff containing everything from a potato tuber, minus the starch.

Potato pulp is a useful ingredient for many of the processed foods people eat and also for livestock feed. So if farmers grew Amflora, we’d probably end up eating GM products and feeding GM products to animals whose meat, milk and eggs we eat. Alongside the GM maize and GM soya (soybean, Glycine max) already imported for feed. Would that be a problem?

Perhaps Amflora pulp would be no problem at all. Paul van Eijck at PotatoPro (‘the #1 online information source for the global potato industry’) likes GM. He says, ‘In the end, genetic modification is just a technology and – as with so many technologies – HOW the technology is used determines it’s acceptability.’ He said that in his article about GM potatoes. It was published in 2010 and updated in August 2013, so by now it’s a few months out of date, but it’s worth a read.

Perhaps Amflora pulp would indeed be a problem. When Tania Rabesandratana at Science told us how the EU approval for Amflora was annulled, she explained why some people don’t want Amflora to be grown here. Here’s the press release from the Court. BASF requested permission for Amflora as an industrial raw material, and permission for Amflora in food and feed.

The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (FMER)-sponsored GMO Safety told us about Amflora – a potato for industrial applications.

The spud’s all right, said FMER. Go right ahead. But Hungary and other member states didn’t agree with Germany about Amflora. Those objections weren’t properly assessed, said the EU General Court.

Objections to Amflora were about an antibiotic resistance gene called nptII. That gene was in the crop because, when making Amflora, scientists at BASF had used the Agrobacterium method. That had involved putting in nptII alongside the change that would ‘silence’ the gene for amylose. Thanks to nptII, potato cells with the silencer in place could be chosen in the lab because they’d grow on media containing an antibiotic called kanamycin. Those cells were then grown into potato plants. In other words, nptII was a marker gene. By the time Amflora reached a field the marker gene’s job was done but it was still there. Hungary and other EU member states were concerned that nptII might move from potato plants into bacteria, making antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is a serious problem. For example, we don’t want the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis which causes human tuberculosis (TB) to resist antibiotics. Hungary and other EU member states said that Amflora could lead to kanamycin-resistant M. tuberculosis. But the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) dismissed those objections in 2012. Here’s the EFSA response to Hungary’s objection. EFSA says, ‘Kanamycin resistance in M. tuberculosis results largely from chromosomal mutations and not from the transfer of aminoglycoside resistance genes such as nptII… No new information on the safety of the nptII gene, as present in the GM potato EH92-527-1 [Amflora], was identified [by Hungary].’

In other words, EFSA said that growing Amflora wasn’t likely to stop doctors treating TB.

Meanwhile BASF withdrew Amflora from Europe in January 2012 because it was fed up of the arguing. Dave Keating at European Voice discussed BASF’s decision in his article, ‘What future for GM crops in Europe?’ ‘Last week’s announcement by BASF that it is abandoning its production of GM crops in Europe because of a lack of acceptance “from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians” was an acknowledgement of a reality many biotechnology companies have been hesitant to countenance – Europe does not like genetically modified crops.’

Tania Rabesandratana at Science told us in her article about an email this month from Peter Eckes, president of BASF Plant Science in North Carolina. He said, ‘The court’s ruling once again shows that BASF took the right decision in January 2012 to focus its plant biotechnology activities on promising markets’ in America and Asia.

I don’t blame BASF for throwing in the towel about Amflora in Europe.

There’s no evidence to make us think that this potato would have been a problem. It wouldn’t have put pressure on insects to evolve insecticide resistance, as Bt crops do. It wouldn’t have put pressure on weeds to evolve herbicide resistance, as Roundup Ready crops do. It wouldn’t have exposed people to any more Bt toxin (which might, or might not, damage organs) or Roundup (which might, or might not, cause chronic diseases) than we face already.

Amflora in Europe would have given more power to the biotech giant BASF. A chemical company that proudly offers Seed Solutions. Was that the real reason for objecting to Amflora?

[Edit] Corporate Europe Observatory (‘Exposing the power of corporate lobbying in the EU’) tells us that the Amflora story involved ‘conflicts of interest, flawed science and fierce lobbying’ as ‘EFSA and BASF paved the way for controversial GM crops in the EU’.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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3 Responses to A GM potato for Europe?

  1. Eqfe says:

    Guess we didn’t learn our lesson with the potato famine. One of the things that frightens me the most about GM plants are how inevitably they reduce biodiversity. In the US the vast majority of our major crops (everything but wheat really) is that there are only a handful of varieties. Serious crop failures are almost inevitable.
    I think that Europe is right to take a wait and see approach.

  2. Pingback: A GM soya for Europe | Science on the Land

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