Nelly Bassily | September 29, 2008
Some six years ago, a genetically modified potato was developed in the lab of an American university. In the years that followed, it was tested in confined field trials in South Africa. The GM potato was touted as a boon for small-scale farmers, because it guards against a pest that destroys potatoes in the field and in storage. But now that the potato variety is close to commercial release, farmers say that they don’t want anything to do with it.
South Africa’s Agriculture and Research Council has worked, with the support of the United States Agency for International Development, to develop the SpuntaG2 potato. This variety has been genetically modified to contain a naturally occurring microorganism called Bacillus thuringiensis. Insertion of this microorganism — commonly known as Bt – into a plant’s genetic code causes the plant to produce a toxin that kills certain insects. In the case of the SpuntaG2 potato, the toxin is designed to target the tuber moth.
The tuber moth worm bores into a potato, then eats its way out, destroying it from the inside. The Agriculture and Research Council claims that 40 million South African Rand (approximately 5 million American dollars or 3.5 million Euros) of potatoes are lost each year to the moth. The council has applied for permission from the South African GMO authority to release the SpuntaG2 commercially, meaning that any farmer could purchase and grow it.
South African farmers, however, doubt the economic benefits of the genetically modified potato. Potatoes South Africa is a group that represents potato farmers. They have signed a petition asking the government to prevent the commercial release of the GM potato.
Ben Pieterse is the research manager for Potatoes South Africa. He maintains that the tuber moth is not a major problem for farmers. Potatoes South Africa has identified five other pests and diseases – including leaf miner, late and early blight, scab, and certain viruses – as higher priorities than the tuber moth.
Any benefit that farmers would receive from the potato would be outweighed by consumer backlash, Mr. Pieterse argues. And since there is no mandatory labelling for GM potatoes and no testing or tracing procedures, it will be impossible to keep GM potatoes separate. This is a problem for export markets and farmers who supply major food chains that will not take GM potatoes.
Click here to see the notes to broadcasters on GM potatoes