Potatoes - Amflora, the BASF GM Potato

German chemical company BASF has won approval from the European Commission for commercial growing of its starchy potato, Amflora.

Farms in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic will be allowed to plant the potato for industrial use, with part of the tuber fed to cattle.

Other EU member states, including Italy, France and Austria criticised the decision, saying that it could prevent antibiotics from being effective in hospitals and elsewhere.

During the discussions over Amflora, the EU's pharmaceutical regulator had expressed concern about its potential to interfere with antibiotic action in human and veterinary medicine. Amflora contains a gene producing an enzyme which confers resistance to several antibiotics, including kanamycin, neomycin, butirosin, and gentamicin. The gene is inserted as a "marker", so that the genetic modification (or lack of it) can be assessed.

The European Medicines Authority (EMA) warned that these antibiotics are likely to become important in treating infections, and that growing Amflora with its marker gene in open fields might give bugs a way of developing antibiotic resistance. This could be a medical disaster.

After member states become deadlocked on the potato's approval, the European Commission approved it for use in industries such as paper production, saying it would save energy, water and chemicals. Once the starch has been removed, the skins would be fed to animals, whose meat would not have to be labelled as GM.

The EC, whose decision was backed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), said there was no good reason for withholding approval.

"Stringent controls" (sic) would ensure none of the tubers were left in the ground, ensuring altered genes did not escape into the environment.

Opponents fear that bacteria inside the guts of animals fed the GM potato which can cause human diseases may develop resistance to antibiotics.

Some member states objected. Austria said it would ban cultivation of the potato within its borders, while France said it would ask an expert panel for further research. Italy was also vocal in its opposition.

Campaigners accused Brussels of failing to follow the precautionary principle. Friends of the Earth's Heike Moldenhauer said: "The commissioner whose job is to protect consumers has, in one of his first decisions, ignored public opinion and safety concerns to please the world's biggest chemical company."

Campaigners suspect Brussels is in favour of the widespread planting of GM crops despite opposition by some member states. Yesterday it also announced its intention to allow states more leeway in backing GM organisms.

The trial, which will run until 2012, will be protected by a range of security measures and the harvested potatoes will not be used for human consumption or animal feed. However, of the 50 GM crop trials approved by Defra since 2000, few have survived the attention of saboteurs.

(4 Mar 2010)

ND / Diversity website

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