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Mashed Genes

March 3, 2010

Amflora is a potato genetically tailored for the production of starch. A gene resistant to antibiotics has been spliced into its DNA. Despite protests by environmentalists, Amflora will be soon be growing in Europe.

Amflora potatoes being harvested in a test field
Several hundred hectares of Amflora potatoes will be planted in Europe this yearImage: AP

After more than 13 years of political wrangling, the European Commission has approved the cultivation of Amflora, a potato genetically modified by the German chemical company BASF for use in starch production.

The potatoes produce pure amylopectin starch, which is used by the paper, textiles and adhesives industries. Conventional potatoes produce both amylopectin and amylose starches, which then have to be separated.

However, the potato also contains a genetic implantation harvested from bacteria which is used as a marker during its development and then remains in the crop when it is cultivated. Critics say that the gene may diminish the effectiveness of antibiotics – to which it is resistant – if ingested or integrated into the environment.

EU Commission President Jose Barroso
Critics say Jose Barroso's commission ignored popular willImage: AP

Amflora is an industrial potato which is neither allowed nor suitable for use as food. However, by- products of its industrial use may be fed to livestock, and the presence of up to 0.9 percent of Amflora genes in conventional food is permitted.

Cold welcome

European Union regulations require three months advance notice before genetically modified crops are planted, and BASF is planning to plant several hundred hectares this year in Germany, the Czech Republic and Sweden. In Germany, about 20 hectares (50 acres) will be planted in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Helmut Born, general secretary of the German Farmers' Association, said farmers will only plant Amflora if they believe buyers will emerge, which he sees as unlikely given Europeans' negative view of GM crops. He regards the potato as likely obsolete by now.

"If a variety of potato has been tested and verified for 13 years – it's really not that new anymore … I have the impression this variety has been held up so long by now that it has been surpassed by other varieties."

Companies are already distancing themselves from Amflora. A representative of the Emsland Group, a leading German starch manufacturer, told a newspaper on Wednesday that his company would not plant the potatoes because it did not want to risk losing customers. Another German starch manufacturer, Sudstarke, told a different newspaper that it would be nearly impossible to separate the genetically modified and conventional potatoes in his company's manufacturing facilities.

Alternatives exist

At least one potato variety producing pure amylopectin starch without controversial gene splicing is being cultivated today, and others are being developed through conventional selective breeding sped up by chemicals and DNA analysis. The chemicals are used to induce a wide range of mutations, and the DNA analysis is used to determine quickly which specimens carry desired traits. The resulting crop varieties have conventional genetic characteristics.

Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli
John Dalli defended the commission's decision in BrusselsImage: EC

Dirk Prufer, of the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology in Aachen, is involved in developing such potatoes "because it's an important thing for the market and also for the environment."

The process used to separate amylopectin from amylase in starch potatoes today is very energy intensive, he says, and a new way of cultivating the potatoes for starch would make a "significant contribution to environmental protection."

He isn't concerned about potential side effects from BASF's genetically modified potato.

"I don't see any danger in Amflora for humans or the environment, and I happen to know that the next generation of plants which will be released will not have the antibiotic-resistant marker in them," he said.

Lack of transparency

The fact that alternatives to Amflora exist has led Greenpeace activists to accuse the European Commission of pushing through a pro-business decision without taking the safety and will of European people into account.

Marco Contiero, EU policy director on genetic engineering for Greenpeace, accused the EU's executive of a lack of transparency. Commission President Jose Barroso and Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli "pushed through a decision which affects 500 million people without even holding a debate within the commission," he said.

"Nowadays nobody in the biotech industry uses this technology, because it puts us at risk for nothing. It was just used at the beginning of the development of this technology to mark which plants were successfully modified. Today they use other methods which do not interfere with the genome of the plant," he said.

Following his decision, Dalli told reporters in Brussels that "all debates have been done, the arguments have been exhausted," according to the DPA news agency.

The BASF buildling in Ludwigshafen
BASF has been waiting more than 13 years for the approval

BASF spokeswoman Susanne Benner denied accusations that Amflora's antibiotic-resistant gene could transfer from the potato plants to bacteria which make humans sick.

"Amflora is safe for humans, animals and the environment and that has been scientifically confirmed unequivocally many times," she said. "The claim that Amflora increases the likelihood of the genetic transference of this (antibiotic-resistant) gene from plants to bacteria has been scientifically refuted. This gene occurs in nature, in fields, and in our stomachs, where millions of bacteria exist."

Benner said BASF hoped to engage in dialog with local residents where Amflora will be planted. She said she hoped the crop would not evoke any "transgressions." Anti-GM campaigners have destroyed GM crops in Europe in the past in a bid to sabotage their production.

Author: Gerhard Schneibel
Editor: Nathan Witkop