Johan Bergstrom, a blond and boyish man of 31, who farms here with his father, reached into the dark, soft soil and extricated a tennis-ball-size potato, holding it gently so as not to snap off any of a half-dozen white shoots that were growing out of the potato’s eyes. He advised against tasting the potato, whose dulcet name Amflora belies its harsh flavour, a result of genetic jiggling that has made it almost pure starch.
The potato, the first genetically engineered organism to be allowed in the European Union in more than a decade, was planted on 6.5 hectares of land on the fringes of this town in south-western Sweden, after a quarter-century of bureaucratic wrangling.
Although inedible, Amflora is a kind of miracle potato on two counts: for one, there is its starch content, which makes it precious to the starch industry, a major employer in Sweden; and then there is its feisty resilience in surviving some 25 years of tests, regulations, rules, ordinances and applications for approval by both Sweden and the European Union, of which Sweden is a member.
While not grown as a food crop, the Amflora potato is giving many people in this region of rolling hills, broad lakes and small farms a bad case of indigestion.
Though genetically engineered crops like corn, cotton or soybeans are common enough in the United States, they remain a rarity in Europe, where public resistance is high. The European Union takes the position that the long-term effects of genetic engineering on the environment and on plant and animal life cannot yet be known with scientific certainty, and so urges extreme circumspection. In few places is that caution as much in evidence as in Skara.
“I generally don’t like modified potatoes, carrots, what have you,” said Bengt Uilsun, 74, a veterinarian, interrupting his shopping one recent Friday morning. “Perhaps it’s not unhealthy for humans now, but it may be unhealthy over the long term for other creatures.”
Still, the Amflora is something of the pride of Sweden.
Development began in the mid-1980s, at the beginning of the revolution in biotech foods. A Swedish farmers’ cooperative, Lyckeby, one of Europe’s biggest starch producers, was searching for potatoes with high starch content to supply the starches it sells for manufacturing paper, textile finishes, glues and other products. “Genetic engineering was first emerging,” said Kristofer Vamling, 51, managing director of Plant Science Sweden, a company that grew out of the original research efforts. “We thought this could perhaps be something for the new engineering.”
But then, in 1998, the European Union imposed an indefinite moratorium on approval of genetically modified organisms, and no one at Plant Science knew when it would end. “I heard every year: ‘Next year,”’ Vamling said.
The moratorium was finally lifted in 2004, but it was another six years before the bureaucrats in Brussels, perhaps concerned about falling too far behind in biotech, gave the green light for planting. None too soon for Bergstrom.
Since 2004, when he finished agricultural college, Bergstrom has run a 240-hectare farm just north of Skara, raising wheat, rye, barley and other crops. His family has farmed the lands here since the 1660s.
In 2006 a neighbour asked whether he wanted to try the new Amflora potato. “He asked if I was interested, we talked about it,” Bergstrom said. “It’s one more leg to stand on.”
Holding one potato, he said, “I cannot tell the difference.”
He is aware of the controversy.
“You need both sides,” he said. “But the debate has gone the wrong way, and that’s bad.”
“I don’t see any risk, or very low risk,” he said. “There are so many papers to fill out; if only everyone did the same inspecting we do.”
Just a few kilometres west of here, Anders Lunneryd, 47, disputes that. Working the 170-hectare farm his grandfather bought in 1942, he grows wheat, oats, barley and a variety of other crops, but like an increasing number of farmers hereabout, he has done so organically for the past 10 years. When spraying his fields in the past with insecticides or weed killer, he explained, he often came too close to the village, and people would complain bitterly.
“I’d stop immediately, I’d tell them, if I could afford to,” he said. “After all, I’m the one getting sick from all the chemicals.”
As demand for organic crops soared, he switched to organic farming. “We have increased demand all the time,” he said. “People are asking for it.” Now about 2,800 hectares of land in the area are organically cultivated, he said.
He objects to genetically modified foods, for their complexity and the control they give to big corporations. The genetic codes, he said, ‘`are like a piano keyboard, but going four times around the planet earth, and now you’re going to play that piano?
‘’And it’s even more complex,” he said, “because you’re playing in an orchestra.“
He compares biotech crops in farming to performance-enhancing drugs in sports. ‘’In the short run, it enhances your performance,” he said. In the long run, you get sick from it.”
The bees that Ann-Charlotte Berntsson keeps along with angora rabbits and deer on her 36-hectare farm are far upwind from Bergstrom’s potato fields, but still she worries. The bee is a particularly sensitive animal, and in recent years entire bee colonies have been known to suddenly collapse, though no such significant cases have been reported in Sweden. Still, some experts speculate that poisons from biotech plants may be one cause.
‘’Modern agriculture is one of the bee’s biggest threats, and we are also the farmer’s best friend,” she said. ”The organic farmer is our best friend. “
Not everyone in Skara shares her concern. ‘’It’s not a big issue,” said Tomas Ek, 43, a local radio reporter, as he strode into a market on the main street. ”People are more interested in the price of a product, and its fat content,“ he said, than whether it is genetically engineered.