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GM Spuds – Industry can’t agree on blight costs

Immediate release (28 Feb 2007)

Calls to Pete Riley 07903 341065 or 01226 790713

BASF, the company wanting to field test GM potatoes in Cambridgeshire and Humberside [1] over the next five years, and the British Potato Council (BPC) cannot agree about the annual costs of blight damage in UK potatoes.

BASF want to test GM potatoes engineered to resist blight. They claim [2] that the annual losses due to blight amount to £50 million per year with £20 million needed to pay for fungicides. In contrast, BPC [3] put the cost of damage due to blight at £3 million. They agree with BASF on the costs of fungicide spray.

GM Freeze has assessed the claims made about the losses due to blight by BASF. Based on BPC’s average price [5] of £135 per tonne, a £50 million loss would equate to 370,000 tonnes of potatoes or 6.2% of total production of 6m tonnes annually (BPC figures). Using BPCs figures, the losses would be just 22,250 tonnes per year or 0.4% of the total crop.

Blight is a serious fungal disease of potatoes. In recent years considerable progress has been made in predicting the occurrence of blight and in developing varieties which are naturally resistant to the disease. At present 20% of the most popular commercial varieties offer good resistance to the disease and potato breeding lines introduced from Hungary are producing highly resistant strains [4].

The BPC Flight Against Blight (FAB) campaign monitors the blight population regularly to check for new strains of the fungus which in the past few decades has developed the capacity to reproduce sexually as well as asexually. The latest BPC finding “indicates that strains are not successfully mating in Britain and producing oospores which could otherwise lead to difficulties controlling the disease” [5]. However, they call upon growers “to stay alert for signs of blight and control sources of infection such as outgrade piles and volunteers” and to sign up to FAB and BPC’s Blight Watch which monitors the disease around the country.

Defra issued a consent to BASF in December 2007 to release the GM potatoes in Derbyshire and Cambridgeshire. In an unusual step, the consent was personally signed by Secretary of State David Miliband instead of senior civil servants. The Derbyshire site was withdrawn two weeks later and this week BASF informed Defra of a replacement site at Hedon in Humberside. The trials will last 5 years.

Commenting of the lack of agreement between BASF and the BPC Pete Riley of GM Freeze said:

BASF clearly have a vested interested in exaggerating the costs of potato blight losses – they want to sell the idea of GM potatoes to farmers and politicians. BPC don’t have to inflate the costs of damage. We’ll leave it to readers to decide who is likely to be more accurate. Mr Miliband has firmly nailed his colours to the GM mast by personally endorsing these GM trials. Let’s hope he has not been taken in by BASF’s hype and that gets he gets better advice if he ever has to make decision on whether these GM potatoes can be grown commercially. GM won’t solve the blight problem because the disease can evolve into new strains. What is needed is an integrated approach of conventionally breeding resistant varieties, close monitoring and very strict hygiene to minimise the use of fungicides.

ENDs

Calls to Pete Riley 07903 341065 or 01226 790713

Notes[
[1] BASF press release 27th February. See also www.defra.gov.uk/environment/gm/regulation/applications/index.htm
[2] As above.
[3] British Potato Council Growers Advice Fight Against Blight www.potato.org.uk/media_files/FAB_GAs/01outgradehygiene2005.pdf
[4] Sarpo varieties are being developed by the Sartavi Research Trust. See GM Freeze report here for more.
for more information.
[5] BPC press release February 2007 www.potato.org.uk/department/knowledge_transfer/press_releases/index.html?did=2085&pg=1