U.S., Russia Develop GM Potato

More than half a century after U.S. food shipments introduced the dreaded Colorado beetle into Russia's potato fields, scientists from both countries have developed a genetically engineered potato resistant to one of Russia's worst agricultural pests, officials announced Tuesday.

Russian scientists at the Center of Bioengineering have adapted technology developed by St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto, one of the world's largest biotechnology companies, to three varieties of potatoes commonly grown in Russia, said Konstantin Skryabin, the center's director.

Genetically engineered crops are modified to make them toxic to a specific insect or to be resistant to a popular weedkiller in order to make them cheaper to grow. The technology is widely used in the United States, but European countries have been reluctant to embrace it because of fears of unknown health and environmental consequences.

Russia has seen almost no public debate on the issue, since the country has had no experience with genetically modified crops, Skryabin said.

If approved for sale, the modified potatoes would change that. Speaking at a joint news conference with Monsanto representatives and U.S. and Russian officials, Skryabin said such approval requires extensive testing and is at least three years away.

Holding up three plastic bags containing perfectly round, acorn-sized seed potatoes, Skryabin said the genetically modified versions of Russia's Lugovsky, Nevsky and Yelizaveta varieties would be a boon to farmers, whose approximately 3.3 million hectares of potato fields yield far less than they could.

"Our problem is the enormous number of pests in our potatoes," he said, adding that total losses to insects, fungi and viruses amount to $2 billion a year.

Among the top enemies of Russian potatoes is the Colorado potato beetle. The bug was unknown in Russia until it invaded via U.S. food aid following World War II, Skryabin said.

The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, praised the project and the potential of biotechnology to help meet the food needs of the world's growing population.

Mikhail Kirpichnikov, Russia's first deputy minister of science and technology, also voiced support for the project.

"New biotechnology that brings benefits for human health, improves agriculture and is environmentally friendly and economically beneficial should be supported," Kirpichnikov said.