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Wednesday, 17 April 2013

GM Potatoes

Genetically Modified Potatoes and the role of Codex Alimentarius
            In a much wider perspective, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are defined as organisms in which the genetic material has been changed in a manner that does not exist in nature. The technology, one of the recent controversial inventions is often referred to as modern biotechnology, gene technology, genetic engineering and occasionally recombinant DNA technology. Technically, the technology enables particular individual genes to be transferred from one organism to another including between non-related species. The techniques are applied in growing genetically modified food crops (Joint FAO/ WHO, 2006).

            There are some reasons why GM foods are developed and marketed. The reasons are based on the belief that there is some supposed benefit either to the producer or consumer of these products. The final products translate into a lesser price, more benefits in terms of durability and nutritional content. Originally genetic modified developers of seeds wanted them to be appreciated by producers, farmers and the entire industry. The original purpose for developing plants based on genetically modified organisms was to enhance crop protection. The genetically modified plants on the market today are mainly intended at an augmented level of crop protection. This is supposedly achieved by introducing plant resistant to diseases brought by insects or viruses or by more tolerance towards herbicides.
            Resistance to insects is made possible by incorporating into the food plant some genes responsible for production of toxins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. This toxin is at present utilized as a conventional insecticide in practice of agriculture and is consumed safely by humans. The genetically modified crops that permanently generate this toxin have been revealed to require lesser amounts of insecticides in definite situations. On the other hand, resistance to virus is achieved by introducing a gene from some specific viruses which brings disease in plants. Resistance to virus enables the plants to become less susceptible to diseases brought by such viruses, giving higher yields in crops (Damato, 2009).
            Additionally, herbicide tolerance is made possible by introduction of a gene from a bacterium transmitting resistance to some herbicides. The utilization of such crops has caused a reduction in the amount of the herbicides applied in situations where the weed pressure is elevated. Generally consumers consider the habitually consumed food or traditional foods as safe. In situations where new foods are made naturally, some of the existing features of foods can be changed. The change achieved can either be positive or negative. Traditional foods are not habitually examined and in fact, new plants developed by traditional methods may not be assessed rigorously by the risk analysis techniques (Shiva, 1999).
            The national authorities consider that definite analyses are essential for genetic modified foods. Particular systems have been put in place for the thorough assessment of genetically modified organisms and foods. The evaluation is carried out relative to both health of people and the environment. Studies reveal that similar assessments are usually not done for traditional foods. Consequently, there is an important disparity in the assessment process prior to marketing for these two categories of food.  One of the goals of the World Health Organization Food Safety Programme is to aid the authorities in the detection of foods that are subject to risk assessment. This includes genetically modified foods after which a good assessment system is recommended.
            In order to determine the risks to human health, the safety evaluation of genetically modified foods usually looks into toxicity or the direct health effects and the tendencies of foods to aggravate allergic reaction. Other ways of evaluation are the definite components thought to possess nutritional or toxic properties and the steadiness of the inserted gene. The safety evaluation also includes the nutritional effects connected with genetic alteration and any unintentional impacts which could cause the gene insertion.
            When the genetically modified foods are considered for human health, there are some major issues of concern. While research has covered a vast range of aspects, the three main issues considered are tendencies to aggravate allergic reaction called allergenicity, gene transfer and out crossing. As a matter of fact, the movement of genes from usually allergenic foods is discouraged except when it can be established that the protein product of the moved gene is not allergenic. Unlike GM foods, traditionally produced foods are not usually tested for allergenicity. According to research, protocols for tests of genetically modified foods have been assessed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO). The results indicate no allergic impacts relative to genetically modified foods on the market today.
            The Codex Alimentarius is a compilation of globally documented standards, codes of practice, guiding principles and other approvals concerning foods, food production and food safety. Codex Alimentarius Commission was introduced in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The commission's chief objectives are to protect the consumers’ health and ensuring fair practices in the global food business. The commission is accepted by the World Trade Organization as a global reference point for the resolution of disagreements regarding food safety and protection of consumers.
            Codex Alimentarius Commission was made to develop food standards, guiding principles and codes of practice .The commission is also responsible of promoting coordinating all food standards work carried out by international governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Though not officially part of the Codex Alimentarius, FAO and WHO provides the commission with the expert technical advice on the food safety aspects of genetically modified food.
            The Codex Inter-governmental task force on biotechnology foods stressed the significance of developing internationally accepted guidance on issues relating to the safety of the foods coming from biotechnology. The task force insisted that the guidance should be based on sound scientific support and principles. He expressed the wish that this session would agree on new areas of work to be undertaken and that the Task Force would accomplish its work within the agreed timeframe (Codex Alimentarius Commission, 1993).
            Biotechnology can play a major role in satisfying the food requirements of a growing and increasingly developed world population. Nonetheless, for some uses of biotechnology, the benefits anticipated should be compared with possible risks, to human and animal health and also to the environment, using a definite scientific structure. It is therefore expected that in defining its work program, the Codex Inter-governmental Task Force should grant deliberation to those concerns that would generate the biggest advantages to consumers’ health and improve food security and nutrition welfare of low-income communities.
This is to be done while taking due account of work accomplished by other national authorities and relevant organizations. It has been suggested that in the future, a worldwide specialist organization could be created to aid in evaluating safety measurements carried out by various groups with the goal of evaluating their compliance with Codex rules. Of course it cannot be emphasized enough, the urgency to aid developing nations to increase their capability in the safety evaluation of foods resulting from biotechnology. FAO’s has reiterated its willingness to support, jointly with WHO, the job of the Task Force by offering the required scientific advice (Joint FAO/ WHO, 2006).
The reason why the issue of GM is so sensitive has to do, in part, with gene transfer and out crossing. Gene transfer from genetically modified foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract would arouse alarm if the transmitted genetic matter affects human health badly. If antibiotic resistance genes used in creating GMO were to be transmitted, it would be particularly pertinent. The use of technology without antibiotic resistance genes has been encouraged by a recent FAO/WHO expert panel, although the probability of transfer is low.
Out crossing is the transfer of genes from GM plants into ordinary crops or related species in the wild. This, and the mixing of crops grown from common seeds with those grown using GM crops, may produce an indirect consequence on food security and safety. This threat is genuine, as was demonstrated when traces of a maize type which was only permitted for animal feeds were found in maize merchandise for human consumption in the United States of America. Strategies to minimize mixing have been adopted by various countries. This includes a clear division of the farms within which GM crops and ordinary crops are grown. Moreover, viability and modes of post-marketing supervision of GM food products, for the nonstop surveillance of the safety of GM food products, are under discussion.
There are no special international regulatory systems currently in place regarding the issue of international GM foods trading. A few international organizations however are involved in developing protocols for GMOs. The Codex Alimentarius Commission is one such body. It is a joint FAO/WHO body whose responsibility is assembling the standards, codes of practice, guidelines and recommendations that make up the Codex Alimentarius: the international food code. Codex is responsible for the development of ethics for the human health hazard examination of GM foods. The basis of these principles dictates that a premarket assessment should be carried out. It should be done on a case-by-case basis including an assessment of both direct effects and unintended effects. Direct effects are those that result from the inserted gene while the unintended effects are those that may arise as a result of insertion of the new gene.
Codex principles are not compulsory on national legislation. However they can be referred to specifically in the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement of the World Trade Organization (SPS Agreement). They can also be used as a reference in case of trade disagreements. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), an environmental treaty legally binding for its Parties, is the one that controls international movements of living modified organisms (LMOs). Genetically modified foods are covered by the Protocol only if they contain LMOs that are able to transfer or replicate genetic material. The basis of the CPB is an obligation that exporters ask for approval from importers before the first shipment of LMOs meant for release into the environment (Damato, 2009).
This is primarily due to environmental issues of concern which are several. First is the ability of the GMO to break out and possibly introduce the modified genes into natural populations. Then there is the perseverance of the gene after the GMO has been harvested and the vulnerability of non-target organisms, for example, insects which are not pests, to the gene product. Additionally, there is the stability of the gene as well as the decrease in the range of other plants including loss of biodiversity. Finally, there is a rise in utilization of chemicals in agriculture. Local conditions cause a considerable variance in the environmental safety aspects of GM crops. 
 Investigations on these issues have been focused several issues including the potentially harmful effect on useful insects or an increased introduction of resistant insects and the possible creation of new plant pathogens. Also included are the possible harmful repercussions for plant biodiversity and wildlife, and the diminished utilization of the vital practice of crop rotation in certain local situations, as well as, the transfer of herbicide resistance genes to other plants.
Potatoes have been losing significance as a food crop over the past few years. But quite the contrary, its prospects in the starch and chemical industry have been growing for quite some time. Taste is not important for starch potatoes. In its place, emphasis is placed on the superiority and composition of the starch. An optimized starch potato has been introduced to fields of Europe. This latest potato strain is genetically modified. Only about a quarter of the potatoes grown in Europe actually get consumed by people directly. About a half is fed to livestock. The last one quarter is utilized as raw material in the manufacture of alcohol and starch.
 Potatoes have become very important renewable raw materials for the starch industry. However, the starch found in potatoes, is not in a perfect form. It is made up of a blend of two dissimilar kinds of starch: amylose and amylopectin. The two components of starch display very diverse properties. Amylopectin makes up eighty percent of the starch content in potatoes. It is comprised of large, highly-branched molecules. It results to starch water being soluble and gives it its typical stickiness. Amylopectin is utilized in the food, paper, and chemical industries as paste, glue or as a lubricant. Amylose on the other hand, is comprised of long, chain-like molecules and is utilized largely to manufacture films and foils.
 These two kinds of starch are valuable for human nutrition. However a mixture of different starches is a problem for the processing industry. They are forced to separate the two kinds of starch using costly processes that are harmful to the environment. For that reason, plant breeders worked relentlessly to come up with potatoes that contain only one type of starch. Emphasis was placed upon developing potatoes containing only Amylopectin, because of its many applications.
Conventional reproduction methods have failed to give an amylose-free potato that has satisfactory yield and resistance to pests and diseases. On the other hand, genetic engineering or sense-Strategy provides a reliable approach to repressing the production of amylose. For several years, genetically modified amylopectin potatoes were tested in field trials. Applications were then presented to European regulatory authorities for approving the cultivation of these potatoes as a renewable raw material for starch production. A request for the approval of the potatoes as feed was also submitted because the post-processing residues would be fed to livestock.
Attempts to give pest and disease resistance to potatoes utilizing genetic engineering have not been quite as successful. However, a few genetically modified potato cultivars with increased resistance to viruses and to the potato beetle were accepted in the US and in Canada. They planted about 25,000 hectares with those new cultivars but farming of GM potatoes was stopped. This is because the GM potatoes did not do well. They were not giving any financial returns, and several big US companies declined to accept the GM potatoes for additional processing.
More research is ongoing on potatoes with genetic engineering to give resistance to Phytophthora infestans, also called late blight of potato. This is considered to be the most harmful plant infection of all because it can spread very fast when the environment is warm and moist, resulting to overwhelming losses. It is best remembered for causing the Irish Potato Famine of 1846-1850. Surprisingly, this disease is still a big predicament. It is very flexible and has been able to elude all management strategies utilized so far and has reacted with new, modified forms. The disease is treated using fungicides and heavy metal treatments which harm the environment.  Meanwhile, genetic engineers have developed a hopeful new approach; they developed fungus resistant GM potatoes that are on field trials.
Three stakeholders are directly involved in the introduction of genetic engineering in potato breeding. These are public research institutes, biotechnology firms, and potato breeding companies. The Center for Plant Breeding and Reproduction Research of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries, and the Department of Plant Breeding (IVP) of the Agricultural University of Wageningen are the most vital public research organizations. . Keygene, of Wageningen, and MOGEN, of Leiden are the two new biotechnology firms that are doing research on transgenic potatoes in the Netherlands.
The potato breeding firms, the third group of shareholders, are undergoing a restructuring. To begin with, there is a group of firms being formed, through mergers and takeovers. Secondly, potato growers have extended reproduction research activities, as potato reproduction study at public institutions has been reorganized. Then, the increase in genetic engineering has motivated firms to rise funding in biotechnology research. This is being done either by the firm’s research department or contracting out the research. There is a general feeling of need by most firms to keep up to date with the latest research findings. Lastly, pressure has mounted on breeding companies to develop varieties that have improved pest and disease resistance. This will translate to less pesticide requirements. This restructuring process will confer the potato breeding companies more influence and power in the potato product chain as a whole.
There are two kinds of transgenic potatoes that can be identified: those with improved resistance to pests and diseases, and those with superior characteristics for storage and processing. All the major potato pests and diseases qualify for genetic engineering research. It also includes diseases and loss resulting from nematodes, bacteria, fungi, virus, insects, and herbicides. Most of these pests and diseases are not a big threat to potato cultivation in the Netherlands, but they are significant due to the huge export of seed potatoes. For example, seed potatoes exported to Mediterranean countries encounter subtropical diseases prevalent in these countries.
  Genetically modified potatoes that were virus resistant were the first to be adopted in the Netherlands. A new strain of transgenic potatoes, which are resistant to Potato Virus X, will be ready for business in several years. They are currently still subject to cultivation tests. Nematodes and fungi are the two most significant hazards to the Dutch potato crop. Genetic engineering research on resistance to these is in its very early stages. Commercial introduction of transgenic potatoes with better resistance to nematodes or fungi is not expected for quite a while.
Transgenic potatoes with superior storage and processing characteristics have been released in the Netherlands. However they are still subject to cultivation tests. In one of the transgenic potatoes, the starch composition has been altered. It has been made Amylose free. This particular potato may lead to better efficiency of industrial starch processing. a different kind of transgenic potato has been altered to make it less susceptible to bruising so as to lessen wastage of raw material in the process of storage, transport, and processing. In Denmark for example, research on transgenic potatoes is aimed at bettering cold resistance. Potatoes with higher cold resistance can be kept at lower temperatures. That means that they would need fewer chemicals for preventing sprout growth. Some countries have directed their genetic engineering research towards improving the starch content.
In conclusion, for potato farmers, the introduction of transgenic potatoes with increased disease resistance may result to a change in variable costs. For example, it may mean lesser expenses for pesticides but increased initial costs of material. Likewise, transgenic potatoes with better storage or processing characteristics may translate to higher prices for the farmers produce, but the starting material may be costly. Still, the economic implications can only be looked at in hypothetical terms (Bijman, 2009).


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