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July 27, 2008

South African GM potato a step closer to market

Africa's first locally developed genetically modified crop has finished its field trials and is now before an interdepartmental committee that will decide whether it can go on South African markets.

The GM potato, developed by SA scientists using an American "design", has been adapted to fend off the potato tuber moth, which costs the food industry up to R40-million annually.

The potato was developed for local conditions by an Agricultural Research Council team led by Dr Kobie de Ronde. The findings of six years of field trials were to be presented to the media in Pretoria on July 25.

Last week De Ronde's scientists were set to complete the paperwork needed for the crop to be commercially produced. A committee comprising representatives from six departments now has to start a process that can take anything from six months to a year.

Hans Lombard, a GM expert, said on July 24 the potato will especially help small farmers in Africa to reduce costs. Large-scale farmers and firms do not normally have to fight tuber moths, because potatoes are processed quickly.


Tuber moth damage is an infestation which was estimated to cause some R40-million ($5.3 million) in potato yield losses a year.

The ARC would now apply to the Department of Agriculture (DoA) and relevant authorities for a safety assessment, and general release of the SpuntaG2 potato, which would allow the council to initiate farmer participatory pilot trials under unconfined conditions.

Important to note is that this is a publicly-led (not-for-profit) initiative under the DoA, and the ARC, and seed potatoes would not be distributed by seed companies at a premium. In fact, the GM potatoes would be the first GM product that is not sold at a premium in South Africa. The SpuntaG2 potatoes were developed in collaboration with the Michigan State University in the US.

If and when the general release was obtained, the council would also then develop a certification and labelling system to prepare for commercial release of improved or modified potato varieties. The timeline and trials still to be conducted, meant that biotechnologically enhanced potatoes would not be on the market before 2011.

Biotechnology association AfricaBio explained that this insect resistant potato project has been developed mainly for small-scale farmers (and not for export), who are most affected by moth infestation as they cannot afford to spray crops, or cover the costs of cold storage of crops.

“As a major staple crop, the development of a GM potato is a boon to the smallholder farmer, to help ensure food security and alleviate hunger,” added AfricaBio executive director Jocelyn Webster.

Although the Spunta variety potato is not the preferred commercial variety, if the regulators and smallholder farmers are satisfied with SpuntG2 results, the ARC could transfer potato tuber moth resistance to other preferred varieties. “This is already in the pipeline,” stated ARC researcher Dr. Kobie de Ronde.

The SpuntaG2 has shown complete protection against the tuber moth during its six years of testing in six major potato-growing areas under confined conditions in South Africa. The studies were carried out with permission from national regulators and included measures to control pollen and potatoes at the trial sites. Environmental studies also showed that the SpuntaG2 controlled the potato tuber moth without affecting other organisms.

Potato tuber moths lay eggs on the plant surface, and their larvae burrow into the potatoes causing considerable damage. The moths affect the crop in the field, and often times more considerably when potatoes are in storage, if cold storage facilities are not available.

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