Published 2017-11-22This post is also available in Swedish
Environment the big loser from rejection of genetic engineering
Potatoes are one of the world’s most important crops, but also one of the most diseased.
Erik Andreasson and his colleagues in Mistra Biotech have therefore developed a kind of potato that is resistant to the most serious disease. The snag is, being developed by using genetic engineering, it cannot be grown commercially.
‘It frustrates me, not least because there’s no tenable proof that GMOs as such boost the risks.’
As a child, Erik Andreasson was given a square-metre vegetable patch by his parents.
‘It was fun and got me very interested in plants and cultivation.’
Today he is Professor of Plant Protection and Head of the Resistance Biology Unit at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and an active researcher in Mistra Biotech. He is still interested in growing plants; the only difference is that his first square metre has now become a hectare.
‘Tomatoes, grapes and asparagus grow there. But I’m cultivating my soul even more. Growing things also helps me cope with the frustration I sometimes feel when the results of my research aren’t put to use.’
His sense of marking time is easy to understand. Research-wise, there has been progress: for example, he and his colleagues have developed a potato variety that is resistant to late blight and brown rot. They have done that by identifying and moving a gene from an inedible potato and creating a variety that is both tasty and worth cultivating, while being resistant to the most common disease.
The snag is that its sale is not permitted because nobody wants to register it, and thus the research results have not yet been directly useful.
‘The problem is the laws governing use and commercialisation of crops modified by biotechnology. When they were written many years ago, there may have been cause for some concern, but now the technology has been used for 40 years without any adverse effects. This has meant that the use of genetically modified plants is growing in large parts of the world. The main exception is Europe, where it’s still almost impossible to get them out onto the market.’
The fact that potatoes are worth modifying is not surprising. They are one of the world’s most important crops, but also one of the more susceptible to disease. In addition, potatoes are extremely difficult to process in traditional ways. The potato varieties we buy in shops today are sometimes more than 100 years old.
The big threat to potatoes is late blight. As it is today, so it has been for a long time. The worst period of all was the mid-19th century, when a disease caused by a water mould (Phytophthora infestans) brought about a wide-ranging, disastrous famine in Europe. In Ireland alone, about a million people died of starvation when the potato harvest failed, while many of the survivors left the country.
When late blight attacks a potato plant, it kills the shaw (stems and leaves), from where the disease spreads underground to the potatoes themselves, which start to rot from within. The susceptibility to disease also means that we rarely see organic potatoes in our shops. The few varieties available are not especially tasty, and harvesting them is difficult.
At the same time, healthy potatoes give better yields than most other crops. A single hectare can be enough for 200,000 meals a year.
‘In Mistra Biotech, we’re working along several different lines to combat the water-mould attacks. One is to introduce new receptors that sense when a fungal attack is beginning and it cause the affected part of the plant to die, thereby preventing the disease from spreading further.
An alternative method of solving the same problem is the CRISPR/Cas9 technology, about which much is currently written.
The difference between the two methods in this context may be described, in highly simplified terms, as follows. In traditional genetic engineering, a foreign gene with desired properties is inserted into a plant, while the genome-editing technique of CRISPR/Cas9 can ‘switch off genes’ with the ‘wrong’ properties — ‘susceptibility genes’.
‘From a processing point of view, CRISPR/Cas9 has some advantages but, perhaps more importantly, a crop that’s modified with the technique presumably isn’t going to be considered a GMO. So the legal and market obstacles in our way to date would decrease. The potential problem that exists is that the genes we switch off may have other important properties.’
The big loser from the negative attitude towards biotechnology is the environment, Andreasson thinks, not least because farmers have to spray their fields so often. It also boosts costs, which ultimately hit the consumer.
‘The legal barriers have also forced us to look outside Sweden. Today, we cooperate closely with China and Kenya. In both countries the scientists are succeeding, which makes me worried about the future of European agriculture. While other countries are taking big steps forward, we’re standing still. It could cost us dearly. We want technology-neutral legislation that assesses each new product’s risks in similar ways.’
Andreasson thinks smallholders may be especially hard hit if they are not allowed to use genetically modified crops, especially because, especially in developing countries, they are unable to manage combinations of spray agents in the same effective way as the bigger farmers can.
Despite all the good that Andreasson sees, there are no indications that the legal stalemate in the EU regarding genetic engineering is about to be resolved.
Do you feel resigned?
‘Sometimes I despair, but because we’re working on several techniques at the same time, I feel like continuing. What’s more, I’m convinced that some of the basic research I’m doing will one day be beneficial.’
Another problem for biotechnology research is the difficulty of finding funders who want to get on board when the journey ahead is so uncertain.
‘Mistra is one of the few funders that have ventured to fund research, and that makes their investment incredibly important. In particular, I value the opportunity we natural scientists have had to collaborate with philosophers and social scientists. That’s given me a greater understanding of why legislation in the area is the way it is, and why it’s so difficult to change it. Realising that scientific arguments don’t always move the debate forward has also been useful.’
The fact that genetic engineering has become such a strong symbol of agro-industry, which is much criticised, may perhaps be explained by the first crops to be modified being those that would tolerate Roundup, the herbicide used for weed.
‘If they’d started with products with clearer consumer benefits, the picture might have been different today. Instead, genetic engineering has become a weapon in the created conflict that exists between organic and conventional growing.’
Facts about Mistra Biotech
During the programme period, from 2012 to 2019, Mistra will be investing SEK 94 million. The programme host is the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).
The goal is to strengthen Sweden’s role internationally in biotechnology and contribute to increased competitiveness for Sweden’s agriculture and food producers.