'There's no need to grow GM potatoes'

Organic farmer John Brook is making a case that there is no need to grow GM potatoes – because new varieties can match their resistance to disease.

The Soil Association, arguing that a Norfolk experiment with blight-resistant GM potatoes is unnecessary, has been pointing out that natural versions already exist.

It is referring to the Srpo varieties, developed by the Srvri Trust, a not-for-profit research and development company working in Wales, where blight bites hard, with strains originally developed by a Hungarian family of agronomists called the Sarvaris, using wild potatoes from South America. The Hungarian potatoes need to be adapted for local conditions and for new strains of blight.

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The Srpos have not yet caught on with big professional growers, but Mr Brook has tried them. He and his wife, Lynda, run the Brickyard Organic Farm, at Badsworth Common, WF9 1AX, between Pontefract and Barnsley, and sell through their farmyard shop and Yorkshire markets.

He said this week: "I tried a few rows of two varieties – Axona in 2008 and Mira last year. I was too late to get any this year. We got a little bit of blight in the tops but you could hardly see it.

"They take a long time to grow and we probably didn't get the Axonas in early enough for a good size, or maybe they were hungry in the conditions we gave them. But the Mira yield was fantastic. The ones we lifted at the end of October were 90 per cent as big as your foot and the ones we left to November were twice that. I should probably have cut the tops down earlier.

"They grew as high as the sweetcorn next door to them and it was a hell of a job when I got round to it. There were a lot of odd shapes but no splitting and they were a nice colour and we sold them okay. They were not superlative for eating but there was nothing wrong with them."

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David Shaw, a former Bangor University scientist, now director of the Srvri Trust, said Mira and Axona were early results of their work, which started in 2002 – big dry potatoes which did not suit the supermarkets, although good for baking, chipping, mashing and roasting. They had since developed other strains, more like the all-purpose standards, and were building up seed supplies. Meanwhile, many people found Axona comparable to Rooster and Thompson & Morgan sell it to gardeners.

They are also working with the Potato Council and the government's agricultural labs at Sand Hutton to find the most blight-resistant varieties in the established range of potatoes.

Dr Shaw said: "The Srpos resist all sorts of viruses and smother weeds well. One way and another, they do not need any spraying at all. I don't expect the GM people will do any better in terms of performance but their aim is to be able to transfer the blight resistance to any variety, of course."

The Sainsbury Laboratory is conducting the Norfolk trial with a modified version of the commercial variety Desiree.

CW 19/6/10

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