Scientists are developing a genetically modified “super spud” free of fungal diseases and other pest problems, as well as being potentially healthier than conventionally grown potatoes.
ield trials are expected to be announced in June after the general election because of the public sensitivity of the research, which is expected to be vociferously opposed by anti-GM campaigners.
Researchers at the Sainsbury Laboratory, a government-funded research institute based in Norwich, have already conducted field tests on a GM potato with a single additional gene. They have now drawn up plans to insert up to eight genes into a commercially-popular variety of potato, such as Maris Piper or Desiree.
Three of the additional genes will be targeted against a fungal disease called late blight, which can devastate potato crops and costs UK farmers £60m a year in control measures, such as spraying with harmful pesticides up to 25 times a season.
Two of the added genes will impart resistance to nematode worms, another important source of crop loss. There will be three further genetic alterations which will protect the tubers against bruising as well as lowering the risk of potentially harmful acrylamide chemicals forming when potatoes are fried.
The previous field trial, which ended in 2012 after three years, tested a gene transferred into potatoes from wild Solanum plants, which are related to potatoes and tomatoes. The gene conferred limited resistance to late blight, which causes worldwide potato-crop losses of about £3.5bn a year.
However, in order to prevent the fungus itself from developing resistance to the GM trait, it is now necessary to incorporate two further genes that will enable the GM crop to remain disease-resistant for many years to come, said Professor Jonathan Jones, the head of the project.
“Deploying one gene is not enough because the pathogen tends to become resistant so we’re trying to deploy three different resistant genes at once that recognise different parts of the pathogen which would make it much harder for the pathogen to evolve,” Professor Jones said.
“If we get funded, then we hope to begin planting next spring [in 2015],” he added.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which has funded Professor Jones’s previous work, has formed an industrial partnership with Simplot, an American company that has just received approval for its own GM potato variety to be grown and sold in the US.
“The gene that we did clone first has been licensed to Simplot and that gene cloned here is being deployed in the US so American farmers will be benefitting from it way before European farmers,” Professor Jones said.
The GM “super spud” is one of a new generation of genetically modified crops that could have huge environmental benefits by increasing yields, lowering reliance on agro-chemicals and improving storage and reducing crop losses after harvest.
However, public opposition to GM foods, especially in parts of Europe, could result in many years of wrangling over regulatory and safety issues before these new crops are seen in UK supermarkets.
“Even if there were no excessive regulatory barriers, it would take about eight to 10 years. It will be small-scale to start with because it takes time to bulk up,” Professor Jones said. Earlier field trials had to be protected by a 12ft-high fence and 24-hour security at a cost of £46,000, paid as a one-off supplement by the research council.