Interview with former GM scientist on GM potato trials (17/4/2007)

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Podcast transcript
GM potato trials - 12/04/2007

Interviewer: I'm Michael Green, Policy Officer at the Soil Association. I'm going to talk to Ken Hayes, the Soil Association's standards researcher who's previously done research and development into GM plants.

So Ken, you used to work in a GM laboratory. Can you tell me more about the research that you were doing there?

Ken: I was researching the very early stages of pollination when the pollen first lands on the stigma. The aim was to better understand how brassicas such as cabbage and broccoli prevent self-pollination. Commercially, this mechanism is a bit of a pain because it makes it really difficult to maintain favourable traits by in-breeding.

Interviewer: So, genetic engineering sounds like an incredibly precise process. Can you tell me a bit more about how scientists insert genes from one organism into another?

Ken: Scientists have manipulated a soil borne bacteria which infects plants and causes crown gall disease. This bacteria has evolved a mechanism for inserting genes into the plant which then causes the tumorous growth you can sometimes see on nut trees and vines it causes quite a commercial problem. But the plant biotechnologists have removed the genes which caused the tumorous growth and put foreign genes which are then inserted into plants at random and that's the very first stages of the GM development.

Interviewer: Okay, how could this process of inserting one gene into another organism lead to, for example, unintended side effects?

Ken: Well, it's the insertion of the foreign gene into the plant's genome it's completely at random. And there's always an element of uncertainty as to how that gene will interact with its new environment - with the other genes around it, with the other molecules within the plant's cell. That's quite a complicated system of how the gene is expressed, and how the resulting protein which is what the gene produces interacts with all the other molecules and all the molecular pathways within the cell.

Interviewer: So there's a lot that scientists don't know about the effects of genetic modification on our food...

Ken: Yes, because of this random insertion of the gene, there's always going to be an element of uncertainty as to how that gene will react to being expressed in the new plant and that could lead to things like allergic reactions to toxicity when we consume the plants. And then also how that gene would then interact if it was to cross-fertilise with another plant a different variation.

Interviewer: A recent Russian study by Monsanto showed that feeding rats GM potatoes actually damaged their internal organs. Do findings like this surprise you?

Ken: Okay, no I don't think it is surprising when you insert a foreign gene into another plant. I think it's inevitable that it's going to behave slightly differently, and the repercussions of that should always be researched very thoroughly. These findings suggest that there should be more research done.

Interviewer: So in your experience, do you think that there's much potential to control some of the unexpected side effects of GM?

Ken: I think there will always be an element of uncertainty, there will always be that unknown factor, as to… you can't understand everything. There's so much in science which we don't know and so that element of risk will always be there, and considering what risks are at stake, where you're introducing this GM technology into the natural environment, into our food which we eat every day, then I don't think you're ever going to be able to eliminate those risks.

Interviewer: So do you think that the official scientists are in denial about the risks of GMOs?

Ken: No, I don't think the scientists themselves are in denial. I mean they're very aware of the risks. Everyone is it's very much in the public domain. Theoretically, the concept is very attractive and very powerful and I think it's up to governments and up to businesses and regulatory bodies to always take those risks and those uncertainties on board and make sure that they don't disregard the repercussions of introducing such plants and such GM technology into our food.

Interviewer: So in the light of these new GM potato trials in England, are consumers still right to be concerned about GMOs?

Ken: Yes, I think they are very much right to be concerned because there just really isn't the research done into the potential risks of GM on our food. There haven't been the experimental studies into what implications introducing foreign genes into plants and into animals could have.

Interestingly, when I was preparing for this interview, I was having a quick look on some science journals for articles about risks to GM, and it turned out there were so many more articles written about opinion pieces and comments on GM without any experimental basis to them, and it just seems that there's a real lack of experimental data into the risks of GM in our food.

And there's so much in the development process of a GM plant which is behind closed doors, and there's a real need for the controls and the checks and the research done by biotechnology companies to become public and for everyone to be able to see.

Interviewer: Okay, well thanks a lot Ken. That was really interesting to hear about your thoughts on GMOs.

The British countryside has been GM-free for the last four years when Genetically Modified crops were last grown as part of the Government's Farm Scale Evaluations of the environmental impact of GM.

But all this is set to change this month which marks the start of trials of a new GM potato here in England. These trials are going ahead in spite of widespread opposition from consumers and the food industry, not to mention the emerging evidence of the health risks of eating GM potatoes.

The potatoes have been developed by German chemical company BASF who claim they will be resistant to the common fungal disease, blight. The trials are designed to see how the new potatoes will fare outside the laboratory and the first potatoes are due to be planted in April at a farm in Cambridgeshire and will shortly be followed by another farm in North Yorkshire.

This appears like a last-ditch attempt by the biotech industry and the Government to grow GM crops in our countryside. However, it is unlikely that the British public will have any appetite for BASF's GM spuds. Shoppers have already rejected GM foods, supermarkets refuse to stock them, major food manufactures like McCain's won't use them in their products, and the British Potato Council, which represents our potato farmers, has also opposed the trials.

And these new trials in England have also been overshadowed by controversy surrounding GM potatoes across Europe. In March, a Dutch court ordered GM potato trials to be halted in Holland after they found that the government had illegally permitted the trials because the risk to the environment had not been properly assessed.

The following week after the Dutch trials were shelved, BASF announced that they were pulling out of GM potato trials that they had planned over in Ireland. The Irish trials were initially delayed in 2006 due to the strict regulations required by the Irish government, which required detailed plans for the monitoring of the health and environmental impacts as well as the installation of a high security electrified fence.

So instead, BASF are opting to grow their spuds here in England where the GM regulations are much more relaxed.

If you'd like to find out more about GM technology including the new GM potato trials, then you can visit www.soilassociation.org/gm.

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