German GM project stalled (13/1/2005)

Interesting that these researchers have become so dislocated from the rest of society that they're astonished to discover there's a reluctance to dole out yet more cash for a GM project which has already soaked up millions and for which there is
clearly no market.

German GM project stalled
By Ned Stafford
The Scientist, Jan 13 2005

A German research project aimed at producing genetically modified (GM) potatoes with higher levels of an important carotenoid will likely be cancelled before completion because of what the study's leader calls the German government's negative attitude toward GM crop research.

Helmar Schubert, from the University of Karlsruhe's Institute of Food Process Engineering, told The Scientist the German research ministry has refused to provide additional funding needed to complete the 5-year project.

The group has succeeded in producing GM potatoes with 250 times more zeaxanthin than found in conventional potatoes, said Schubert. Past studies have indicated that higher dietary levels of zeaxanthin reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration, a frequent cause of vision loss in the elderly.

Schubert said his group needs just one more year to finish the project, but "at the moment, we have no money to finish the project."

The project, which started in 1999, received a grant of around €10 million (USD $13.2 million) under the government of the previous chancellor, Helmut Kohl. Schubert said Kohl supported GM research more than the current government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose SPD party relies on the support of the Greens party to maintain a parliamentary majority.

Schroeder's government last year supported parliamentary passage of a new highly restrictive GM crop law that most in the bioscience community see as a major blow to German science. Mark Stitt, managing director at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, reflected the prevailing disillusionment during an interview with The Scientist in late November. "Germany has potentially one of the most flourishing bioscience industries in the world," he said. "But now, research will be leaving Germany. Firms will be leaving Germany."

Schubert said simply: "You can imagine that the current government has some problems with our project."

In the spring of 2003, seed potatoes developed by a University of Frankfurt team were planted in a test field by a research team headed by Gerhard Wenzel from the Technical University of Munich. But as has often been the case in Germany, the test field was destroyed by anti-GM activists, throwing the project a year behind schedule. Last spring, the team installed €23,000 (USD $30,400) worth of security cameras before planting a fresh test field, which survived until harvest, yielding 2 metric tons of GM potatoes this past autumn.

The first batch of potatoes was to have been analyzed by the Federal Research Center of Nutrition and Food in Karlsruhe, Schubert said. But funding for the center and most other project participants ended in October, and the 2 tons of GM potatoes are now in storage.

"The potatoes, in our opinion, are very valuable," Schubert said. About half a million euros is needed to complete the project, which would include a second test field planted next spring.

Barbara Dufner, a Research Ministry spokeswoman, told The Scientist that additional funding to continue the program is not expected, adding that funding for Wenzel's University of Munich team ends on May 28. Schubert said he will seek funding from other sources. But if he fails, he said it "does not make sense" for Wenzel to plant another test field this spring.

Christoph Then, a Greenpeace Germany GM expert, told The Scientist that in addition to his organization's opposition to the concept of GM crops, it also is generally opposed to enriching foods with vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients, some of which can be harmful if ingested in excess. "It makes no sense to enrich certain types of food with GMOs," he said.

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