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July 13, 2008

South Africa develops GM potato

South Africa's Agriculture Research Council (ARC) is set to apply to the government for a “general release” permit for a genetically engineered potato it has developed with US researchers.

If granted, the permit will allow the ARC to provide the “super-spud” to small-scale and commercial local farmers.

Genetically modified potatoes are not commercially available anywhere in the world at this stage: although they were approved by US regulators, fears of consumer resistance saw large retailers and fast-food chains give the product the thumbs-down.

The ARC has for the past six years been running field trials of the SpuntaG2 , which has been genetically engineered to kill the tuber moth, a common pest that damages crops both in the field and in storage. Scientists inserted a gene from the common soil bacteria called Bacillus thurengensis, which interferes with the insects’ digestive system, and effectively gives the crop a built-in pesticide.

South African small-scale farmers are particularly vulnerable to the tuber moth, as they have less sophisticated storage methods than commercial farmers, said ARC researcher Gurling Bothma.

The SpuntaG2 would help reduce pesticide use, cutting input costs and benefiting the environment, the ARC said this week.

The permit application will be assessed by the Genetically Modified Organisms Council, but it could be months before they make a decision, said Bothma.

If it is approved, the ARC planned to do further research into its suitability for small-scale farmers, before making the crop available to commercial farmers, said Bothma. The also hoped to develop genetically engineered versions of the potato varieties most commonly grown in SA.

The SpuntaG2 is not widely grown here.

The ARC’s application looks set to run into fierce opposition from groups campaigning against genetically modified crops, such as the African Centre for Biosafety.

The centre was concerned about the safety of the SpuntaG2 for humans and the environment, and its potential effect on potato exports, said board member Vanessa Black.

More than 90% of SA’s potato exports went to countries in the Southern African Development Community. Because many of these countries did not have biosafety laws in place, they would not be able to import genetically engineered potatoes, she said.

Business Day

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