Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Germany gives green light to genetically modified potato trials

Germany's agriculture minister has once more fanned the debate over genetically modified crops by approving test cultivation of a genetically modified potato.

Germany has given the green light for further test cultivation of Amflora, a genetically-modified potato manufactured by chemicals giant BASF.

The decision of Geman agriculture minister Ilse Aigner comes two weeks after she controversially banned a type of genetically-modified maize manufactured by US biotech giant Monsanto. Critics say Aigner caved in to pressure from her conservative Bavarian CSU party by banning MON 810 and has subsequently sought to regain favor with the conservative CDU party by approving the Amflora trial.

Genetically modified crops are an almost exhaustive subject which not only puts the conservative coalition parties CDU and CSU at loggerheads but also leads to heated public debate. However, experts say the MON 810 and Amflora cases cannot be compared although Aigner did manage to rattle the cage in both cases, effectively gaining alternating criticism and applause from parties right across the political spectrum.

Maize with a biohazard signBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Germany recently outlawed the commercial cultivation of the genetically modified maize MON 810

In view of the sensitivity of the issue and the recent uproar caused by the MON 810 case, BASF has agreed to compromises concerning Amflora, which it has not only been testing for years but for which it also received comparatively smooth approval for trials on an annual basis.

The Ludwigshafen-based company has committed to additional security measures for the test cultivation of the potato, including a reduction of the area under cultivation from an initial 150 acres to 20 acres. Moreover, the cultivation will be confined to just one fenced-in field in the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

A dangerous potato?

Amflora is a potato modified to produce starch consisting almost exclusively of a substance called amylopectin which is used in the paper, adhesives, textiles, construction and cosmetics industries. However, critics warn that Amflora may pose a serious health hazard, especially in view of its antibiotic resistance.

German agriculture minister Ilse Aigner Bildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: German agriculture minister Ilse Aigner says BASF's Amflora potato is harmless

The genetics expert of Greenpeace Germany, Stephanie Töwe, says Amflora contains a gene that could jeopardize the life-saving properties of antibiotics.

"It is completely unnecessary to use this antibiotic in the plant and no matter how great or small the risk is, it should be avoided", Töwe said. "The use of antibiotics in various medical areas has already led to extreme problems of resistance. Should this potato be circulated and eaten by animals and humans it is possible that so-called intestinal bacteria will become antibiotic resistant."

In the case of Amflora, a gene bearing the desired properties is coupled with a marker which is antibiotic resistant, according to BASF. The marker gene allows plants that are genetically changed in the lab to be distinguished from ones that are not. Mette Johansson, a spokeswoman for the BASF Plant Science unit, says there is no cause for concern,and criticizes what she calls the "emotional character" of the current debate on GM crops.

An antibiotic-resistant potato

"There is absolutely no risk. It's a very safe potato," she says. "The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has repeatedly stated that the potato is safe and the use of the marker gene is safe for humans, the environment and animals. They base this on the fact that there are lots of bacteria that are resistant to the same antibiotics in normal soil."

A glass jar with pills of different shape, size and colorBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Critics fear Amflora may jeopardize the efficiency of antibiotics

However, the environmental group Greenpeace remains unconvinced and even believes that BASF has a hidden agenda to push for widespread commercial production of Amflora, not only in the non-food sector.

"It is a complete mystery to us why this potato has again been given testing permission, especially since it has already been experimented on for the past 10 years," said Töwe. "This new trial is definitely not a trial which will re-examine risks. With 20 acres of field this clearly is an attempt to improve the crop yield and sooner or later this potato will end up on our plates."

BASF says it plans to market Amflora solely for the industrial sector.

"Customers in the starch industry are waiting for this product. They estimate that they will gain another 100-200 million euros added value every year because of the advantages that Amflora gives," said Johansson.

BASF says Amflora is at such an advanced stage that all the scientific data needed for commercial approval have already been collected.

"We are waiting for another green light from the EFSA who have examined Amflora several times in the past. Every time they have stated that Amflora is as safe as conventional potatoes and therefore we expect they will come to the same conclusion again," said Johansson.

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