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News | Wednesday, 10 March 2010 Issue. 154

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‘Frankenfoods’ for beginners

Surveys have time and again revealed that European consumers distrust genetically modified foods, even if they know very little about them. Here is a quick guide to the world of GMOs, with particular reference to the controversial Amflora potato

What are GMOs?
Genetically Modified Organisms are organisms such as plants, animals and micro-organisms (bacteria, viruses, etc.), which have been modified artificially to give them a new property. This is done by changing the genetic characteristics of the organism, e.g. make a plant highly resistant to a disease or insects.
Initially these genetically engineered organisms were kept safely in labs, then in contained environments such as greenhouses for trials, and eventually some of them have now been released into the environment, in countries like the U.S. and India.

What has the EU decided with regard to GMOs?
On March 2, the European Commission adopted two decisions concerning the Genetically Modified Amflora starch potato, a product of German company BASF. The first decision authorises the cultivation of Amflora in the EU for industrial use, and the second relates to the use of Amflora’s starch by-products as feed. The European Commission also adopted three decisions on the placing on the market of three GM maize products for food and feed uses but not for cultivation.

What are starch potatoes and what is the use of this genetically modified variety?
Starch potatoes are specific varieties that have been selected for the production of starch. They are not used for food purposes since they do have the necessary organoleptic properties. However, the by-product of the starch production (pulp of the potato) is used as feed.
The cultivation of starch potato is closely linked to the proximity of a starch producing plant since the transport costs are high and the conservation time of potatoes is low. Starch potatoes are mainly cultivated in Germany, The Netherlands, France, Denmark and Poland. Other producers include Austria, Finland, Sweden and Czech Republic.
Conventional potatoes produce a mixture of amylopectin and amylose starch. This GM potato has been developed to produce starch composed almost exclusively of amylopectin (starch content of 98%, which is around 20% higher than starch potatoes normally have). For many technical applications, such as in the paper, textile and adhesives industries, only amylopectin is needed. This genetic modification helps to optimise the production process and to save raw materials, energy and water- and oil-based chemicals.

Why is this decision controversial?
Much like nuclear technology, GMOs in general are distrusted by environmentalists because of the risks they may pose to public health, bio-diversity and the environment. There is the possibility of contamination of non-GMO crops and wild flora, which environmentalists argue could have unforeseen and possibly catastrophic consequences.
Amflora in particular contains an Antibiotic Resistance Marker gene (ARM), which has always generated concerns regarding potential development of antibiotic resistance among humans and animals. This is why EC Directive 2001/18 on the deliberate release of GMOs provides that: “Member States and the Commission shall ensure that GMOs, which contain genes expressing resistance to antibiotics in use for medical or veterinary treatment, are taken into particular consideration when carrying out an environmental risk assessment, with a view to identifying and phasing out ARMs in GMO’s which may have adverse effects on human health and the environment.”

Are there other authorised GM products that contain ARMs?
Yes. MON863 maize contains the nptII gene that confers resistance to the antibiotics kanamycin and neomycin. The placing on the market of this maize for all uses with the exception of cultivation is authorised in the EU since 2006.
The cottons MON531, MON1445, MON15985, MON15985xMON1445, and MON531xMON1445 contain both the nptII and the aadA (that confers resistance to the antibiotic Streptomycin) genes.

Are there specific measures to control the effects on the environment?
The Health Commission stresses that, contrary to the situation with many other crops, the potato species does not rely on cross-pollination with other potatoes to reproduce. It is vegetatively propagated.
With respect to risk management measures, the potato will be cultivated and harvested before it produces seeds, eliminating the possibility of inadvertent seed dissemination and persistence into the wider environment.
Measures to avoid unintentional re-growth will also be taken. The sale of the GM potato will be subject to an agreement between BASF and the operators. According to this agreement, (i) conventional potatoes can not be planted in the same field the year following the cultivation of the GM potato (ii) the fields shall be monitored during the following growing season and any volunteer potatoes shall be destroyed. Any potato volunteers that may appear post-harvest will be relatively easy to control by using pesticides, particularly as potatoes are not grown in the same field for successive growing seasons as a part of crop rotation.

Are there any risks involved?
Again, the Commission insists that all the necessary scientific studies have been carried with regard to the Amflora potato, and is confident that ‘no unintended environmental effects due to the establishment and spread are anticipated.’ But environmentalists are not convinced, arguing that Amflora’s effects on health have not been sufficiently investigated. A number of irregularities, including toxicological differences that could have serious implications for food safety, have not been probed. BASF itself admits there is a possibility of contaminating the food chain: “it cannot be excluded that amylopectin potato, may be used as or may be present in food”.
NGOs also claim that the risk assessment of the potato fails to fulfill legal requirements. Directive 2001/18 Annex II stipulates mandatory assessment of products for long-term effects. Only a 90-day study was carried out by BASF which is a subchronic but not a chronic long term study, which is a 24-month study.
There is also the risk of contaminating future crops. As they grow underground, it is virtually impossible to harvest all potatoes from a crop. Potatoes therefore grow back the following years and future crops could be contaminated with the genetically modified variant.



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