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32 I EUROPEAN SEED I EUROPEAN-SEED.COM USING WAGENINGEN GENE TECHNOLOGY POTATOES CAN NOW BE PRODUCED WHICH REQUIRE VERY LITTLE PESTICIDE TO STAY FREE OF POTATO BLIGHT. RESISTANT POTATO VARIETIES COULD BE A REALITY WITHIN FIVE YEARS BUT GENETIC MODIFICATION IS A SENSITIVE ISSUE AND A DECISION IN BRUSSELS IS ANXIOUSLY AWAITED. he pathogen Phytophthora infestans which causes potato blight is literally everywhere. The infectious water can be in the soil in any area where potatoes are grown. This single-celled pathogen can repro- duce incredibly fast and is capable of destroy- ing a crop in a matter of weeks. To prevent this Dutch farmers spray their potato fields 10 to 16 times a season with fungicides. As a result potato cultiva- tion is responsible for half of all pesticides used in Dutch agriculture. It also costs farmers 600 euros per hectare of potatoes. Overall Dutch farmers spend more than 100 million euros every year on protection against Phytophthora commonly referred to as potato blight. Worldwide crop losses due to Phytophthora are estimated at up to 10 billion euros a year. Last September saw the completion of a long-term project in which Wageningen researchers developed potato varieties that are resistant to potato blight. Genetic modifica- tion was used to insert genes from wild Central American potato species in these varieties. Phytophthora scarcely has any effect on them in field trials it proved possible to reduce the use of pesticides by 80 per cent. The genetically modified potato plants are almost identical to the traditional varieties. Except when you have experimental plots where no pesticides have been used then the upgraded varieties look a lot different says project manager and agrosystems researcher Anton Haverkort from Wageningen UR. They continue to grow whereas the standard plants next to them rot away. After a couple of weeks the trial field looks like a green and brown chessboard. It is more than 10 years since a delega- tion of civil servants from various ministries visited Wageningen in search of projects on the application of genetic modification in agriculture. Haverkort There was a feeling in government circles that the Netherlands was starting to lag behind. No other country earns so much from seeds seed material and flower bulbs but we were doing nothing with genetic modification. It was almost inevitable that Wageningen would come up with a pro- ject focusing on potatoes and Phytophthora says Haverkort. It is the most important Dutch arable crop and potato blight is a major problem. Furthermore Wageningen professor Evert Jacobsen had been working on genetic modifications of potatoes for a while and he had already discovered a few Phytophthora- resistant genes. So we could get off to a flying start we knew that we would be able to pro- duce a potato with lasting resistance within 10 years. The proposal soon got the go-ahead with a grant of 10 million euros from natural gas revenues. And so the DuRPh project was born the Dutch acronym stands for lasting resist- ance to Phytophthora. A new form of genetic modification was deliberately chosen for the DuRPh project only species- specific potato DNA was used to make the plants resistant. That meant genes from wild potatoes that could also be crossed with modern potatoes through pollination. RESISTANT POTATO AWAITS APPROVAL BY ARNO VAN T HOOG