Business Report (iol), September 17 2008
The proposed commercial release of a genetically modified (GM) spud in South Africa has become something of a hot potato as farmers and some major food giants say they will not use them.
Potato SA, which represents potato farmers, has written to the department of agriculture saying the potential costs, particularly of consumer backlash and possible loss of exports, outweigh the potential benefits.
This is the first time organised agriculture has opposed the introduction of a GM crop in South Africa.
The submission is in response to a permit application by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), which has been working with Michigan State University to develop tuber moth-resistant potatoes with funding from USAid.
Ben Pieterse, research manager at Potato SA, said tuber moth was not a major problem in South Africa.
"The benefit is far less than the potential damage to the industry. We won't save that much on pesticide as we will still have to spray for other pests.
"There is no mandatory labelling for GM products, and no testing or tracing procedure, so how do you keep the GM potatoes separate?"
Pieterse said this was important for export markets and farmers who supplied major food companies that would not take GM crops.
Diale Mokgojwa, who manages Potato SA's emerging and small farmers' programme, says this sector also opposes the commercial release of GM potatoes.
The GM potato is the Spunta variety, which is not suitable for processing, so the big food chains would not use it anyway.
The plan is to transfer the GM technology to other varieties of potato in time.
Owen Porteus, managing director of McCain Foods, the biggest producer of frozen potato products globally, said all the company's products were GM-free.
"We're very much driven by consumer needs and they don't want GM."
Kobie de Ronde, the ARC scientist who heads the GM potato project, said much of the resistance to GM was because of lack of understanding. All GM crops underwent a full safety assessment before being approved for production.
ARC's application for commercial release contained a "full set of environmental, food and feed safety data" that indicated GM potatoes were as safe to grow and eat as conventional spuds.
"This is not an application for a full commercial permit so that potatoes will be on the market tomorrow. We'd still have to plant them in specific areas so we can evaluate certain questions," De Ronde said.
She agreed GM labelling needed to be addressed. ARC was discussing this with the department of health.