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Public acceptance of genetic modification to improve disease resistance in potatoes

In 2002 and 2003, research conducted by Lincoln University's Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit (AERU) with focus groups found out what New Zealanders think about genetically modifying potatoes with a toad gene to prevent bacteria causing soft rot.

Toads produce a protein that acts as an antibiotic toxin to the bacteria causing soft rot. The gene that codes for this protein can be made in a laboratory and inserted into potatoes so that they produce the antibiotic as well. This would protect them from soft rot, increasing a potato farmer's harvest and New Zealand's potato export crop. It could also reduce the amount of pesticide that a farmer would need to use.

Soft rot is a common disease in potatoes. It is caused when a bacteria (Erwinia carotovora carotovora) infects a potato tuber. Soft rot is a huge problem for New Zealand's potato growers.

What do New Zealanders think?

The research found that, of the 117 participants, people tend to find this example of biotechnology unacceptable.

Survey respondents were concerned about the impact that this technology would have on commercially growing potato crops. In particular, they were concerned that farmers would have to grow the genetically modified potatoes and that their sale price would be cheaper, making potato growing less worthwhile for farmers. They were also unsure if there would be any side-effects (such as impacts on the environment, side-effects in humans, irreversibility, the potato cultivar mutating, how the potato would respond to mutations in the soft rot bacteria and the challenge to biodiversity). Even those that were in favour of using biotechnology in this way wanted it to be thoroughly trialled in carefully controlled experiments. There was a lot of uncertainty about how much trialling would be optimal and who would fund it so that the results could be trusted.

There was some excitement amongst focus group participants about the reduction in pesticide and fungicide use needed by a GM potato crop. Some respondents also thought that this GM potato has potential to reduce world hunger quickly. Others disagreed, saying that any increase in the potato harvest would actually have very little impact on third world countries – many of whose populations don't eat potatoes.

Another area of comment focused on the "naturalness of food". People were concerned that their food was being "mucked around with". Some people were positive about the fact that the toad gene is synthetic (it is made in a laboratory and not actually collected from toads). Others were repulsed at the thought of eating a toad gene because they had a strong dislike of toads. "We don't eat toads for a reason," said one person.

Useful link

The AERU report Public Understandings of Biotechnology in New Zealand: Factors Affecting Acceptability Rankings of five Selected Biotechnologies (#266) can be downloaded from the AERU publications list on the Lincoln University website, here.


    Published 16 November 2007