Acreage low, stewardship high for GE potatoes

The three varieties in Simplot’s Innate Gen 2 lineup are, from left to right, Burbank, Atlantic and Ranger.

This year’s Canadian acreage of J.R. Simplot’s genetically engineered Innate potato will be “very small” to non-existent, according to a company spokesperson.

Kerwin Bradley, director of commercial innovation for Simplot, says the company’s marketing strategy for new varieties is based on customer polls and identification of marketing channels. “We don’t plant potatoes, or give seed to growers, until we know that there is a place for them to sell them, so how quickly that develops depends on how quickly we develop routes to market for those potatoes,” he says.

“That way we ensure we keep the risk really low for everybody, especially the growers.”

The company has been talking to major Canadian retailers to “check the pulse” of their interest in the new potato, says Doug Cole, Simpot’s director of marketing and communications.

First generation lines of the Innate potato, which boast lower bruising and acrylamide, were approved by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency last spring. Second generation lines, which have late blight resistance and lower sugar levels for improved processing, have already been approved in the U.S., and Canadian approvals are expected later this year.

“Growers could be growing either first or second generation lines in Canada next year,” says Bradley. “In this crop season there’s a lot of interest in the second generation lines, so that adds complexity as well.”

Any acres planted to Innate potato varieties will be in Eastern Canada, or potentially Manitoba, he says.

Producers across Canada have been forewarned that growing biotech potatoes will present unique stewardship challenges.

Innate potatoes are vegetatively propagated, which means there’s no risk of “gene flow” to the environment via pollen or seed. Stewardship requirements exist to prevent biotech potatoes getting into the supply chain when they’re not wanted, and vice versa.

But Bradley says the level of stewardship requirements will depend on the size and character of producers’ operations. In the U.S., where Innate potatoes are grown on small operations devoted entirely to the biotech varieties, stewardship is simple because there is no risk of mixing biotech and conventional spuds.

Where producers are growing both, stewardship becomes more complicated.

“If you have a whole farm that can be dedicated to Innate there is no further stewardship. If you have a packing facility that can be dedicated to Innate, there’s no further stewardship,” he says. “If you don’t have the scale to achieve total segregation, if you’re sharing farms for example, some of these other stewardship protocols come in.”

Innate potatoes can be grown in the same field as conventional potato varieties, but buffer zones must be maintained between plots. Trucks must be cleaned out before moving between biotech and non-biotech fields. Potatoes must be processed separately and segregated in storage and packing sheds.

Bradley emphasizes that many best practices, such as tarping trucks, are also built into Innate stewardship requirements. “We’re trying not only to keep good segregation, but preserve the highest quality potato possible. That’s part of what we’re selling,” he says.

Simplot provides lots of on-farm assistance to first-time growers adapting to the heavier stewardship demands. The company also provides highly trained agronomy staff for technical support.

The new potatoes have plenty of advantages for growers and customers alike, which is fueling interest on both sides of the border, says Bradley.

“From a fresh potato standpoint, growers should expect to get an increased packout of at least 10 per cent. What that means is that they’ll sell more of what they grow into a higher value market. We’ve never in the U.S. had a rejected load at a customer for bruising. That’s a big deal for growers,” he says.

“In some areas of the country it’ll be worth more than other areas, where you have more bruising or cutting black issues.” GN

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Julienne Isaacs

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

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