Scientists: Deregulate transgenic peanuts

Only such crop for direct human consumption under current review

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

University researchers have asked the USDA to deregulate a line of genetically engineered peanuts they hope will revive the crop in Virginia.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University researchers petitioned the agency last month to deregulate the transgenic variety, which is nearly impervious to a fungal pathogen that has severely impaired peanut production in the state.

"It is as close as you can get to complete (resistance), if not complete," said Pat Phipps, a Virginia Tech professor who studied the crop. "It's complete in the sense you do not need fungicide."

Currently, there are no other pending requests to deregulate a transgenic crop that's directly used for human consumption, according to a USDA database. Other food crops have been deregulated in the past.

Sclerotinia blight, a soilborne fungus, causes yield losses of 50 to 70 percent in peanuts, Phipps said. "It's very destructive."

Virginia is in the northernmost limits of U.S. peanut production, which makes the state particularly vulnerable to the cool-weather disease, he said.

The blight is one of the main factors that has discouraged peanut production in the state, Phipps said.

Peanut production in Virginia hovered at roughly 90,000 acres until the 1990s, when acreage began dropping steadily, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The state's peanut acreage fell precipitously in the past decade, from about 75,000 acres in 2000 to 12,000 acres in 2009, according to NASS.

Sclerotinia caused havoc because farmers could not economically treat the disease, said Phipps. "Growers could not afford to use fungicide."

Elizabeth Grabau, head of Virginia Tech's plant pathology department, began experimenting with inserting blight-resistant barley genes into peanuts around 2000.

Phipps has been involved in field testing the variety developed as part of that process.

By using a gene from another food crop, the researchers hope to avoid the regulatory, legal and marketing complications that have plagued other transgenic crops, which often derive genes from microbial sources.

"It think it's a plus," Phipps said.

The transgenic peanuts are identical to conventional varieties in terms of their fatty acid and mineral makeup, as well as a certain type of toxin -- aflatoxin -- found in the crop under stressed conditions, he said.

Peanuts are self-pollinated, so the transgenic crop has a very low probability of crossbreeding with conventional varieties -- another concern with genetically modified crops, Phipps said.

"The gene has very limited ability to move in nature," he said, noting that isolation distances of about 50 to 60 feet will be sufficient to keep the gene contained.

There are also no weeds in the U.S. capable of crossing with the transgenic variety, Phipps said.

In light of the low risks, the researchers anticipate the deregulation process by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will not be drawn out, he said.

"It took a lot of work to gather the data to file a package we felt was complete enough," Phipps said. "That's the name of the game. To get anything done, you need to anticipate the concerns and questions."

The Center for Food Safety, an activist group that opposes many transgenic crops, isn't convinced by those claims.

Bill Freese, the group's science policy analyst, said genetically engineering can generate unexpected attributes in crops even when the source of the inserted gene is another food crop.

"It's a mutagenic process," he said. "It causes significant mutations in the DNA."

However, the Center for Food Safety is primarily focused on transgenic crops that are resistant to herbicides. The group fears they will lead to increased pesticide use, Freese said. "That's where the action is."

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