DEFRA has given the green light to trials of genetically modified potatoes, reigniting the debate on GM food.

The NFU gave the most positive reaction, saying that it recognised that many consumers and farmers have misgivings about GM technology, but felt biotechnology offered potential benefits to agriculture so it was committed to encouraging necessary research.

However, the British Potato Council said it could not support the trials because of consumer concern about the technology.

Improving

“The industry has been working hard to improve the image of the Great British potato, and sales of fresh potatoes suggest consumers are beginning to recognise it really is a healthy and wholesome option,” said BPC chief executive Helen Priestley. “These trials will put potatoes firmly in the firing line of anti-GM campaigners.”

Ms Priestley said that rigorous procedures were in place to ensure that commercial crops were not contaminated with GM material and that no GM material entered the human food chain.

“Comfortable”

But she said: “While we welcome steps to further understanding of this technology, the public must be comfortable with whatever steps are taken to introduce it and we didn’t feel the time was right.”

Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett went further, claiming the trials would be a monumental waste of time and money. “The government is ignoring what consumers want to eat and their health and safety. Even in America, McDonald’s, McCain, Pringles and Burger King, rejected GM potatoes years ago.”

BASF project manger Andy Beadle said he was not surprised by the reaction as the company had not yet really engaged with stakeholders to explain potential benefits. “We see this as being about choice. Once we have the data it is up to people to decide whether they want the product,” he said.

GM POTATO FACTFILE
  • BASF expects it to take 8-10 years to have a product ready for the market.
  • In the UK, the financial losses resulting from crop damage caused by late blight are estimated at around £50m a year
  • In addition, farmers spend £20m annually on fungicides to protect potatoes
  • BASF is currently conducting field trials on GM potatoes in Sweden, Germany and The Netherlands. However, proposed trials in Ireland were abandoned earlier this year.

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