o The Frog Blog: GM Potatoes - Are They Safe?

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

GM Potatoes - Are They Safe?

Recently the Irish agricultural research advisory organisation Teagasc applied for a licence to carry out field studies using Genetically Modified (GM) potatoes resistant to potato blight. This has caused many to ask what GM potatoes can do for them and if they can potentially be harmful to our health? 

Ireland has had a long history surrounding blight, amounting in sporadic famines, one of the biggest occurring from 1845-1852. More than one million people died and an additional two million left Ireland. However, this disease is very much still around us, harming over 20 per cent of the 320-million-tonne potato population. 

Blight, or “late blight” is caused by Phytophthora infestans, a fungus-like micro-organism called an oomycete. This causes the potatoes leaves to turn black and withered. Additionally the potato itself turns into a blackish, slimy rotten mass. Traditional plant breeding has gradually lost its effectiveness and caused blight to yet again become growing problem. As a result of this an over-necessary amount of fungicides are being used as a precaution. Potatoes are sprayed weekly with these toxic chemicals to prevent infection. Copper fungicides used by organic farmers are still proving to be a problem as they are incredibly poisonous to animals and humans. Another problem with this is that these copper resistant fungicides cause copper-resistant organisms to thrive; most of these organisms are also resistant to antibiotics, which poses further problems. 

Producing GM crops involves a process called gene transfer. This can be carried out in two ways. The first is known as the “gene gun” or the biolistic method. The desired genetic material –DNA is coated over in tiny particles (such as microscopic gold or tungsten pellets). This combination is then “shot” into the plant using helium. Upon conflict, the DNA comes off and gets fused into the DNA of the recipient plant cells. The cell becomes damaged during this process, however it doesn’t die. The second method uses the bacteria Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a soil dwelling bacteria that naturally conducts genetic engineering. This process involves transferring part of its own genetic material (the transfer-DNA or T-DNA) to DNA of the potato plant cell.

Trials are likely to begin shortly in Ireland with similar trials having already started in the UK. Germany’s BASF (a world leading chemical company) have gone so far to seek approval from the European Commission for their new blight resistant potato named “Fortuna”. They have spent years working alongside scientists at the Sainsbury Laboratory and Wageningen University. If “Fortuna” was to be approved it could grow and be sold across Europe by 2014 or 2015. 

The question that many of us are asking is: are these additional genes or proteins harmful? The additional genes are simply bits of DNA and the proteins they code for are just different variations of the resistance protein the potato has already made. A recent EU report, which comments on a 25 year long research into the biosafety of GMOs, concluded that GM methods are no more prone to problems than traditional methods. The underlying conclusion of all studies is that GM foods are better for the environment, the land and us. So why would we turn it down, even after the mounds of scientific evidence and proof?

Written by Junior Frog Blog Reporter Aoise Keogan Nooshabadi. Submitted for the St. Columba's College Biology Prize 2012.