A genetically modified potato called “Innate” has recently made headlines in the U.S. The French fry giant J.R. Simplot’s petition for “non-regulated status” for its proprietary biotechnology process called Innate has been approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Although McDonalds has stated that it has no current plans to utilize GM potatoes, and other fast-food giants still use traditionally bred varieties, the USDA’s deregulation of Innate still marks a victory for GM proponents.
Approval in Canada is likely a distant prospect, however. Depending on market acceptance over time, genetically modified potatoes could be grown here commercially. But consumer perceptions are still largely negative to GM potatoes.
GM potatoes have technically been around for several decades. In the mid-1980s, the International Potato Centre (CIP) and Louisiana State University developed a higher-protein GM potato, but according to Peter VanderZaag, president and CEO of Sunrise Potato in Alliston, Ont., and international advisor to the World Potato Congress, this potato is still sitting on a shelf somewhere.
In the mid-1990s, Monsanto developed its “NewLeaf” potato, bred transgenically, or through the artificial insertion of genetic materials. NewLeaf was tried by several farmers but was rejected by the fast food industry.
“So far no GM potato has made its way into consumer hands,” says VanderZaag.
Vikram Bisht, plant pathologist for Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (MAFRD), says Innate potatoes are produced by the insertion of specific natural genes from sexually compatible cultivated or wild potatoes into desirable potato varieties (in this case, Russet Burbank, Ranger and Atlantic varieties, along with two proprietary chipping varieties).
“These potatoes express several valuable traits, including late blight resistance and reduced expression of bruise injury, and are meant to produce less asparagine, a precursor to acrylamide, a potential carcinogen produced during cooking at high temperatures,” says Bisht. The fact that these potatoes show less browning when fried is an advantage to the processing industry due to increased final product recovery, and to the consumer due to lower acrylamides.
Innate is modified through the insertion of specific genes into the desired potato variety to activate a self-defense mechanism known as RNA interference, which silences the genes related to expression of black spot bruise and asparagine in tubers.
Because the RNA interference mechanism involves the targeted insertion of material from outside the potato, it is considered “genetic modification.”
GM corn, soybean and canola are all widely grown and consumed, but GM potatoes are viewed in a different light and have to date remained largely unmarketable.
Innate on the farm
Growers in the U.S. or Canada would be likely to grow Innate, VanderZaag says, if they could sell it.
“The farmer has to accept the risk: ‘Can I sell this product?’ There may be some farmers who have some moral dilemma with this. It’s like growing GM corn or soybeans. But with those crops there’s a yield advantage,” VanderZaag says. “With this Innate potato there won’t be any yield advantage in the field.” The payoffs would come from the processor, where growers could earn bonuses for high fry quality.
VanderZaag believes there is a significant gap between the scientific community and the larger public in terms of communication, and the lack of transparency and clarity about what genetic modification entails is responsible for general distrust of the technology.
“If we want to promote GM potatoes, we as the scientists and farmers need to be transparent,” he says. “What is gene silencing? What is the mechanism by which these genes have been silenced? If you Google RNA interference you won’t have much success.”
Potatoes have come a long way from their origins in Peru, VanderZaag says, and the genetic transformations have naturally occurred through gene movement and exchanges, sometimes between species. “What’s happening now is that we’re doing it at a more rapid rate and in a more targeted way,” he says. “We have to put it all in context.”
VanderZaag is passionate about the need for GM technology in feeding a growing world population. In his view, until consumer perceptions change, valuable new technologies that reduce waste and increase health benefits will remain underutilized, even though they are much needed in the developing world.
“Science has taught us so much about how to feed the world—but we also have an obligation to educate and inform the public,” he says. “And that’s where I think we’re making huge mistakes. Large corporations are perceived to be bullies. It’s a sociological conflict that we’re just not good at handling.”
He believes that consumers have the right to make decisions about whether or not they’re willing to eat GM potatoes, but they can’t make these decisions until they’re properly informed about what exactly GM technology entails, and the risks, as well as the benefits, of using it.
As for the USDA’s approval of Innate? “I think this is a giant step forward,” he says. “This is adding up to how we’re going to feed a growing global population. This is the reality: we need to use these technologies to help feed the world in a better way with less waste and less risk of carcinogenic effects.”