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Nov 4, 2009

South Africa Rejects Approval of BT SpuntaG2 GM Potato

Devastation that tuber moths
an have on potato harvests.
Photo courtesy of 
Engineering News  
On 4 Novemer 2009, SciDev.Net reported that in October 2009, South Africa's Executive Council for Genetically Modified Organisms rejected an application to commercialize SpuntaG2 gene modified (GM) potatoes.  The potatoes are gene modified with BT to resist tuber moths.

South Africa's Agricultural Research Council is protesting the ruling and has requested a review.  This should be decided upon within the next three months.  The article notes that it is estimated that tuber moths (Phthorimaea operculella, commonly referred to PTM) cause "40 million South African rand (US$5 million) of losses to the potato industry each year."

The South African government rejected the GM potato due to "safety and economic grounds."  Specifically, "[t]he Department of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries ... expressed concerns about the damage the modified potatoes would do to trade, as South Africa does not have the means to segregate GM crops from non-GM. ... Another worry [was] that farmers would still need to spray SpuntaG2 to counter other pests. Moreover, the industry's biggest problems relate to a lack of water and fertiliser, not pests.

Additionally, Julian Jafta, director of genetic resources at the department noted that there was "inadequate toxicity information ... available on the effects of inserting the new gene on potato allergen content."

Ben Pieterse, research and development manager at Potatoes South Africa, opposed the introduction of SpuntaG2 based on concerns that "consumer resistance to GM potatoes would reduce consumption — South Africans currently eat 35 kilograms of potatoes per person annually. Exports would also suffer, he says."  He supported continued GE potato research so that "in future when this technology is needed — then we should be ready."

According to a press release issued by the African Centre for Biosafety, a non-profit based in Johannesburg, minutes from the South African government include the following comments:

  • "The Socio-economic impact study indicates that the commercial farmers do not anticpate this event to present a significant lowering of inputs as the same spraying regime is required to manage other pests which this even does not target
  • Small scale farmers identified more pressing challenges relating to production such as lack of water, seed availability, fertilizers, etc
  • No evidence is presented that other pest management strategies against PTM have been considered or compared with the release of GM-Spunta
  • The applicant presents several arguments of the value of this event for small scale farmers; however, entry of these GM potatoes into the formal trade remains a particular concern. Segregation of GM from non-GM potatoes would require an Identity Preservation System which is currently not in place.
  • The capacity of small scale farmers to implement risk management measures could potentially be onerous
  • Considering the biology of potatoes, vegetative material (tubers) may be used for propagation, which may complicate risk management
  • PTM is not a major pest for stored potatoes but rather rodents
  • The Western Blot of transformed potatoes was limited to protein extracts from leaves and there is an assumption that one band represents the Cry1 la1 protein. No data is presented of expression levels in tubers
  • Concerns on the toxicity testing by use of an animal feeding study was conducted with cooked (boiled) potato although raw freeze dried potato would have been better suited
  • No evidence is presented that known allergens of potato, namely Sol t1 (patatin) are not over expressed in the GM potato
  • No actual toxicity data of the cry-protein on the target organism PTM is presented"

Photo Credit: Tuber moths and their effect on potato harvests courtesy of Creamer's Media, Engineering News, South Africa, 2008.
For more see:
Makoni, Munyaradzi, "GM potato gets roasting in South Africa." SciDev.Net, 4 November 2009.
"South African Govt rejects GM potato," African Centre for Biosafety, Johannesburg, South Africa, no date [retrieved 11 Nov. 2009] citing Republic of South Africa, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

About Margaret

CEO and Curator (The Food Museum) | Managing Director and Chief Editor (GR2 Global LLC) | Educator (UCLA PhD) | Researching and writing on global food issues, nutrition and health, sustainability, history (preservation), conservation (natural resources), and design.
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