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GM potatoes are going in the ground

Genetically engineered potatoes could claim acreage in Canada in 2017


In 2016, no acres were seeded to J.R. Simplot’s genetically engineered first-generation Innate potato lines in Canada — but industry experts say 2017 will be a different story.

“Other than plot-sized production there was no commercial production in Canada this year because of the timing,” says Kevin MacIsaac, general manager at the United Potato Growers of Canada. “But farmers are interested and planning to plant next year.”

The four potato varieties — Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet, Atlantic and Snowden—are intended for the fresh and chipping sectors.

Doug Cole, Simplot’s U.S. spokesperson, says Health Canada and Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) approvals came in the spring, too late for the company to make arrangements for seed and spring planting.

But Cole says Simplot hopes to work with Canadian grower co-operatives and processing companies in time for 2017 planting.

“There are advantages that make these potatoes suited for Canada,” says Cole. “One is that they have less bruising and there would be significantly higher packouts in Canada — more Grade 1 potatoes for use in the fresh market.”

The second trait is lower acrylamide, a chemical compound linked to cancer that forms in starchy foods cooked to high temperatures. Asparagine, the amino acid that forms acrylamide when potatoes are fried or baked, is reduced in Simplot’s potatoes.

“Health Canada has been pretty stringent on identifying acrylamide in various starchy foods and recommending lowering it when possible, so our potatoes would meet that need as well,” says Cole.

In Canada, the varieties underwent pre-market safety assessments by CFIA for release into the environment and use as feed, and by Health Canada for use as food.

The same four commercial varieties were deregulated by the United States Department of Agriculture in in 2014, with FDA approval in 2015. “We just harvested around 6,000 acres in the U.S. and the majority of those potatoes were sold to the fresh market,” says Cole.

Second generation Innate potatoes, which contain a late blight resistance trait, received FDA approval in the U.S. in January 2016. Simplot has also submitted generation 2 potatoes for review in Canada, with approval expected in 2017.

Growing challenges

MacIsaac says special challenges will face growers contracted to grow the new spuds, chiefly Simplot’s requirement that these operations only grow Innate potatoes to ensure zero cross contamination with non-genetically engineered product.

“That creates challenges for growers. It’s manageable but it takes time to line up growers,” says MacIsaac.

“But last year there were meetings starting in January to talk to growers and explain to them what the traits were in the new varieties. I expect this winter there will be a further round of meetings where they talk about how the potatoes have performed, and by midwinter they’ll have the growers lined up who will supply production.”

Cole says stewardship standards will be different for growers growing only Innate potatoes versus those growing other potato varieties. Guidelines for the latter could include buffer zones, tarping trucks and designated packing sheds.

Growers will be chosen based on their ability to steward potatoes until Simplot receives foreign market approvals from targeted Asian markets and others, at which point guidelines might relax.

MacIsaac says he’s heard a lot of interest from Canadian growers in cultivating the new spuds, primarily because of their anti-bruising properties, which means less cullage and waste going into the sheds — and happier retailers.

Of the 4,000 plus acres planted in 2016 in the U.S., Cole says Simplot has sold out all of its Innate potatoes.

“Where retailers get really excited is that at the end of the crop year it’s hard to find potatoes that aren’t bruised because they’re stored in giant piles in storage cellars, and when they come out the bottom of these big piles they’re pressure bruised,” he says. “Our potatoes have about half the bruising of conventional potatoes.”

In the U.S., packaging for Innate fresh potatoes does not indicate the potatoes are “genetically engineered,” but contains a QR code linking consumers to a website with biotechnology information. Cole says retailers will determine packaging requirements in Canada.

About the author

Contributor

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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