January 13, 2005
In the wake of a law seen as a
major blow for science, a major project's funding dries up
A German research project aimed
at producing genetically modified (GM) potatoes with higher
levels of an important carotenoid will likely be cancelled
before completion because of what the study's leader calls the
German government's negative attitude toward GM crop research.
Helmar Schubert, from the University of Karlsruhe's
Institute of Food Process Engineering, told The Scientist
the German research ministry has refused to provide additional
funding needed to complete the 5-year project.
The group has succeeded in
producing GM potatoes with 250 times more zeaxanthin than found
in conventional potatoes, said Schubert. Past studies have
indicated that higher dietary levels of zeaxanthin
reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration, a
frequent cause of vision loss in the elderly.
Schubert said his group needs
just one more year to finish the project, but "at the moment, we
have no money to finish the project."
The project, which started in
1999, received a grant of around €10 million (USD $13.2 million)
under the government of the previous chancellor, Helmut Kohl.
Schubert said Kohl supported GM research more than the current
government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose SPD party
relies on the support of the Greens party to maintain a
Schroeder's government last
year supported parliamentary passage of a new highly restrictive
GM crop law that most in the bioscience community see as a major
blow to German science. Mark Stitt, managing director at the Max
Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, reflected the
prevailing disillusionment during an
interview with The Scientist in late November. "Germany has
potentially one of the most flourishing bioscience industries in
the world," he said. "But now, research will be leaving Germany.
Firms will be leaving Germany."
Schubert said simply: "You can
imagine that the current government has some problems with our
In the spring of 2003, seed
potatoes developed by a University of Frankfurt team were
planted in a test field by a research team headed by
Gerhard Wenzel from the Technical University of Munich. But
as has often been the case in Germany, the test field was
anti-GM activists, throwing the project a year behind
schedule. Last spring, the team installed €23,000 (USD $30,400)
worth of security cameras before planting a fresh test field,
which survived until harvest, yielding 2 metric tons of GM
potatoes this past autumn.
The first batch of potatoes was
to have been analyzed by the Federal Research Center of
Nutrition and Food in Karlsruhe, Schubert said. But funding for
the center and most other project participants ended in October,
and the 2 tons of GM potatoes are now in storage.
"The potatoes, in our opinion,
are very valuable," Schubert said. About half a million euros is
needed to complete the project, which would include a second
test field planted next spring.
Barbara Dufner, a Research
Ministry spokeswoman, told The Scientist that additional
funding to continue the program is not expected, adding that
funding for Wenzel's University of Munich team ends on May 28.
Schubert said he will seek funding from other sources. But if he
fails, he said it "does not make sense" for Wenzel to plant
another test field this spring.
Christoph Then, a Greenpeace
Germany GM expert, told The Scientist that in addition to
his organization's opposition to the concept of GM crops, it
also is generally opposed to enriching foods with vitamins,
minerals, or other nutrients, some of which can be harmful if
ingested in excess. "It makes no sense to enrich certain types
of food with GMOs," he said.
"Study demonstrates essential role of zeaxanthin in eye
health," MD Support: published by permission from RFB
Communications Group, Inc., June 9, 2003.
N. Stafford, "GM law 'a blow for science,'" The
Scientist, December 1, 2004.
N. Stafford, "Uproar over German GM corn," The Scientist,
May 17, 2004.
Copyright © 2005