GM potatoes expelled from Andes (18/7/2007)

GM potatoes expelled from Andes
Peruvians decide to ban transgenic crop from the potato homeland
NATURE, 18 July 2007

This Thursday, the government of Cusco, a region in the Peruvian Andes, is scheduled to ban all genetically modified (GM) varieties of potato, according to the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). The area was the birthplace of many varieties of spud, and is still home to thousands of kinds of potato, from the notoriously hard to peel q'achun waq'achi to the dark grey amakjaya.

The move was supported by a Peruvian non-profit organization called Association ANDES, along with the IIED. The motivation is both to ensure that genes from GM potatoes do not infiltrate the native potatoes, and to support efforts to market the area as a source of diverse, authentic, organic potato varieties.

Alejandro Argumedo, associate director of Association ANDES, cites emotional and economic reasons, as well as cautiousness, for the decision. "This is a potato land. All potatoes have meaning. Potatoes are believed to have spirit," he says. But also, he adds, "There is great concern of contamination at the centres of origin." The ban will also keep cheaper GM spuds from competing with the more expensive local varieties.

Argumedo has long been involved in repatriating varieties of potato that had gone locally extinct, but are held in repositories such as the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. "When the potatoes came back, the culture came back," he says. "Genetic diversity and cultural diversity are closely linked."

Not grown from seed

The growth of GM crops in areas where the genetic diversity of those crops are of significant cultural importance has caused controversy before. There have been concerns that growing GM maize in Mexico, for example, might be a bad idea (see 'Report recommends ban of US GM maize in Mexico').

But some note that there are ways of allaying fears about the accidental spread of GM potatoes. Creating types without viable seeds can help to prevent genetic dispersal. Spuds can be grown asexually by planting the sprouts, or 'eyes', from last year's crop. Other varieties are grown from seed each year.

This month, the CIP announced the creation of a male-sterile potato that is resistant to the pest tuber moth (Phthorimaea operculella). This, according to Marc Ghislain, head of the biotechnology laboratory at CIP, should lessen fears that biotechnologically manipulated genes from this potato will be spread about.

In 2004, a group headed by Howard Atkinson of the University of Leeds, UK, worked on male-sterile potatoes and concluded that with this method, "scientific progress is possible without compromise to the precautionary principle"1. The group had previously seen gene flow from non-sterile GM potatoes to wild Peruvian relatives.


1.Celis, C. et al. Nature 432, 222-225 (2004).

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