At a time when people are questioning the safety of genetically modified food, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved a new genetically modified organism (GMO) potato for sale and public consumption. The GMO potato was reportedly engineered to be safer for consumers. But activists are already gearing up for a fight to keep the tater from becoming a fast food French fry ingredient and a staple on the table.
Named the Innate potato, the spud was developed by the Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Company, a major supplier of French fry potatoes for McDonald’s. The Russet Burbank tater was engineered to resist bruising when being harvested or transported, and also to not produce acrylamide, which is a suspected carcinogen, that regular potatoes create when they are fried.
According to the American Cancer Society, potatoes and other starchy foods produce a chemical called acrylamide when they are cooked at over 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Acrylamide is believed to be a carcinogen. If so, traditional potatoes that are fried for French fries and potato chips could be suspect.
Simplot claims that their potato uses genes from cultivated or wild potatoes to achieve the GMO transformation, which led to the name “innate,” according to their spokesman Doug Cole. The biotech tubers have an altered DNA and took a decade to develop. Simplot conducted field trials of the Innate potato from 2009 through 2011 in eight states. The firm applied to the USDA for approval of their engineered potato in 2013. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also reportedly reviewed the submission and the Environmental Protection Agency. The government examined whether the potato would pose a threat to other plants as well as humans. The tater received an okay now on its USDA application, the FDA clearance is expected in the coming weeks.
Approximately 90 percent of crops such as corn and soybeans are routinely genetically modified. That alteration is done to improve herbicide tolerance. Wheat and other crops with GMOs have been more controversial and not approved in many countries. Monsanto developed a GMO potato that was not successful in appealing to consumers or farmers in the early 2000s.
Much of the argument against GMOs is that they are unhealthy. Nearly all other modified crops, such as corn and soybeans, are made to withstand pesticides, making it easier for farmers to grow them. However, the Innate potato was generically modified to make it healthier. It reportedly is the first genetically engineered crop designed more for consumer benefit than for the seller or distributor financial benefit, which has been a criticism leveled at GMOs.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist and scientist who is a director at the Center for Food Safety, believes that not enough testing has been done on the potatoes. He claims the technique employed to silence the plant’s gene, called RNA interference, is not well understood. “We don’t think enough has been done—and we don’t know enough about this technology—to let this move forward at this time,” he commented, adding that his group might attempt to get the approval reversed.
Even if the new GMO potato approved for sale by the USDA is more successful that the Monsanto one, it will be years before it is possible for them to be used by McDonald’s or on a large scale. Simplot processes approximately 3 billion pounds of potatoes annually but will only be producing a few thousand pounds of Innate potatoes in the next year.
By Dyanne Weiss