The great (GMO potato) debate

Potatoes_stacked_dirty_resizedThe debate on the safety of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in the food industry continues to evolve, but it still leaves question marks in the minds of many. For example, recent discoveries have allowed scientists to modify potatoes so they develop with fewer bruises and black spots, and when fried, produce a much smaller dose of a potentially harmful chemical known as acrylamide.

While this data sounds promising, one recent article reports that some of the biggest potato buyers in the country are refusing to touch GM potatoes or even discuss them, based solely that they are GMOs — a phrase that has seemingly turned into a curse word, according to one scientist.

The reason behind this is a mystery to potato breeder, David Douches of Michigan State University, who was been researching the crop for more than 30 years and admits it’s very difficult, using traditional breeding, to make gradual improvements in an established potato variety. However, Douches and his colleagues are extremely excited about the studies they are doing on GM potatoes, which are finding that they not only bruise less but to also produce less acrylamide — which has been linked to cancer in lab rats.

To demonstrate these results, Douches bangs some potatoes around inside an ancient, rotating wooden drum and according to the article allows him to compare the bruising on two different varieties.

The first variety is russet Burbank, the most popular potato in America. The other potatoes are almost identical to russet Burbank, but are GMOs as J.R. Simplot Co. of Boise, Idaho, has inserted some extra genes into them in the laboratory. These potatoes are called Innate russet Burbank.

The Simplot Co. chose the word “innate” because the new genes it inserted are actually modified versions of some genes that exist naturally in potatoes; they are innate to this species. But the inserted genes have a curious effect: They shut down a few of the potato’s original, natural genes, what is known as call gene silencing.

When the bruise test is complete, the results show that the traditional russet Burbank potatoes are showing evidence of bruising and black spots are forming. By contrast, there are much fewer bruises on the Innate russet Burbank potatoes. When fried, the article goes on to explain, the Innate russet Burbanks will have less than half as much of acrylamide.

For both these reasons — less bruising and less acrylamide — Haven Baker, general manager of Simplot Plant Sciences, thinks that consumers should be lining up to buy these new potatoes. “The number one consumer complaint [about potatoes] is black spot bruise,” he says. “You have to cut it out or, if it’s bad enough, throw the potato away. It’s a significant waste issue.”

Also, according to the International Potato Center, the potato is the world’s third-most-important food crop and an extremely critical crop in terms of food security in the face of population growth and increased hunger rates.

While these new varieties of potatoes have yet to hit the market, some of the very biggest potato buyers are already backing away with some even issuing statements saying their companies are not planning to use GMO potatoes in their products.

Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group, said in the article that food companies should react this way. “When you ask consumers if they’re comfortable with this technology, they are not,” she said.

She went on to say that while there may not be anything wrong with these potatoes, she thinks the government is not regulating biotech crops carefully enough.

“I don’t have some smoking gun to hand you [about] this danger or that danger,” she added in the article, “but we don’t think that the review that they’ve gone through can show us that they’re safe.”

Yet, other advocates for healthy food believe the GMO potatoes offer real advantages.

“It’s really strange how GMO has become a curse word,” Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in the article. “It’s just another technology, and if we could have genetically engineered crops and foods that produce safer products, and less expensive products, that’s terrific!”

The FDA does need to examine these new potatoes, Jacobson added in the article. But also said he hopes people will buy them if they do deliver less cancer risk, and result in less food wasted.

For more information, click here.

Comments are closed.