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Brave New Potato

On Friday, 7 November, the US Department of Agriculture cleared the path to commercialization for a “genetically modified” potato developed by J.R. Simplott.

This is big. This is very big.

It’s big for a host of reasons, but at the top of the list is one: French fries. The United States alone produces some 20 million pounds of potatoes each year, two thirds of which wind up in frozen products. Most of those are French fries. The American consumer eats 120lb of potatoes per year, on average. Global potato production is ~73 billion pounds/year (365 million tons). That’s a lot of spuds.

It’s also big because this is not the first time a biotech improved potato has been developed by innovators. In 1995, Monsanto developed a potato resistant to the Colorado potato beetle, its main pest, and shortly thereafter added resistance to major viral diseases. Though hugely popular with growers, who loved that they didn’t have to spray heavy duty pesticides to kill the notoriously adaptable beetle, organic ideologues intimidated and bullied McDonald’s and their major French fry suppliers into dropping the product, and Monsanto shelved it. But Simplot (a privately held company) has much more skin in the potato game, and their own proprietary relationships with buyers. That their potato, dubbed “Innate™”, will enjoy a happier fate than Monsanto’s New Leaf potato seems probable as indicated by the fact that Simplot is already moving rapidly ahead to Innate™ Generation II. But what do these potatoes do that others don’t, how have they been improved, and why does anyone care?

The first generation of Innate™ potatoes has been improved to resist bruising in transport and storage, and tweaked to produce lower levels of acrylamide, a known carcinogen produced in frying. The second generation adds improved abilities to withstand cold storage, and resistance to Late Blight, a devastating disease of potatoes which some may recall. Simplot estimates “If all fresh Russet potatoes were converted to Innate™ potatoes,

  • the U.S. would save 400 million lbs. of potato waste each year in the retail and food service channels. This also means saving $90 million in producer costs, 60 million lbs. of COemissions, and 6.7 billion gallons of water.
  • Acrylamide levels can be reduced by up to 90% or more.
  • Cold storage at 38° F will likely be possible for more than 6 months without high sugars, leading to less storage-related losses….
  • U.S. blight resistance means less crop damage from the disease and the potential for reduced seasonal fungicide applications (note: The 2014 crop had a significant late blight issues in many areas).”

How could anybody find anything to object to here? Well, “Round up the usual suspects.”

The opposing special interests (easily found – we will not provide links) complain that

“This type of genetic modification is complex, and the resulting GM plants highly prone to unexpected and unpredictable effects…” and claim “We simply don’t know enough about RNA interference technology to determine whether GE crops developed with it are safe for people and the environment. If this is an attempt to give crop biotechnology a more benign face, all it has really done is expose the inadequacies of the U.S. regulation of GE crops. These approvals are riddled with holes and are extremely worrisome….” And reports state “Activists ask McDonald’s not to use potato with DNA of other potatoes.”

This is a load of nonsense.

Let’s focus on RNA interference, and set aside, for the moment, the fact that the only way for McDonald’s, or anybody else, “not to use potato with DNA of other potatoes” is to never use any potatoes at all. RNA interference, or RNAi , is also known as small interfering RNA, post-translational gene silencing, co-suppression, or just gene silencing. Biologists have been studying it in a wide range of fields for a long time. It was only when a couple of brilliant researchers connected a lot of dots in 1998 that we came to understand how widespread and commonplace it is. The discovery resulted in a Nobel Prize. We can now see that this type of genetic modification is not unduly complex, and unexpected or unpredicted effects are much less frequently seen than we find in conventional plant breeding.

Given the ubiquity of RNAi in nature, and the things we see it doing, there is no reason to expect it to produce surprising, or hazardous results. Nevertheless, crops produced with RNAi techniques are made to jump through a circus of regulatory hoops, starting with USDA and ending with FDA. These regulatory hurdles have been discussed at length elsewhere but it is worth pointing again at the list of questions USDA asks and the kinds of lengthy and unprecedentedly detailed answers companies provide. Read the links, and consider the far lower level of scrutiny applied to any/all other foods, including organics, and you will agree that there are no significant or important unanswered safety issues. Anybody who claims otherwise knew the answers before any questions were asked.

Why does anyone care about this potato? As noted, we produce and eat lot of potatoes. We like to eat them in myriad forms, and no reasonable person would dispute that it’s a good thing folks are trying to improve them, and the means we use to produce them.

Some news stories have reported that McDonald’s won’t be buying Simplot’s new potato. This, however, is a classic case of a truth being told to drive a larger lie. ““McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practice,” a company spokesperson said in an email to Capital Press.” But this betokens less than it might at first seem.

One might recall that McDonald’s has been under furious assault by consumer watchdogs and assorted special interests for years (plug “McDonald’s obesity” into any search engine, and stand back!). So, given that it would take Simplot at least several years to build seed stocks up to where they could even contemplate meeting an order from McDonald’s, who on earth would expect McDonald’s to say anything different? This “story” of rejection is both completely manufactured and entirely unsurprising. Let’s see what McDonald’s says when they actually have a realistic opportunity to buy the potato for French fries. For anybody who thinks they will not avail themselves of a chance to improve their margins with less waste, and gain potential health claims as well, here’s a public service announcement – stay clear of the tables in Vegas.

Further to the point, Simplot didn’t get to be a multi-billion dollar French fry king by making elemental errors. Learning from the first attempt to bring modern breeding to potato improvement, they have prudently targeted their introductory market to the fresh potato segment, which they expect will embrace it.

If the predictable opponents would think this through, they’d find this potato, and the technology used to produce it, could solve a number of genuine problems they claim to be concerned about. We already highlighted the proven ability of biotechnology to reduce reliance on external inputs, including pesticides – improving sustainability. After all, Fighting pests with genes is better than fighting them with sprays. It is what Rachel Carson told us we should do (see chapter 17, para 2).

Those who really care about the environment should love this potato. As a number of folks have noted, “GMOs May Feed the World Using Fewer Pesticides”  One splendid curmudgeon put it this way : “May be a problem for the anti-GMO nutters. If they want Labeling and Choice, they can choose the natural organic high-cancer fries, or the safer GMO low-cancer fries. Cognitive dissonance dilemma much?”

Simplott has been commendably forward leaning in answering questions about the potato, and it’s hard to find one they haven’t addressed. Let’s hope they hit pay dirt with it.

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