Genetic Engineers Develop an Appetite for the Humble Spud

Photograph by Simplot

Photograph by Simplot



Update: McDonald’s rejects GMO potato.


Late last week the United States Department of Agriculture gave its blessing for J. R. Simplot Co., a major supplier of frozen French fries to McDonald’s and other fast-food chains, to begin planting a genetically modified (GMO) potato that the Idaho-based company calls “Innate.”

Although not the first biotech spud to be approved by the government (that honor goes to Newleaf, a variety developed by Monsanto Co. in the mid 1990s, but removed from production after five years because of consumer resistance), Innate has some traits that make it almost unique in the GMO world.

Most GMO crops (including Newleaf) are designed to benefit farmers and agribusiness by being resistant pests and the herbicides used to control weeds. They are often developed by splicing genes of completely unrelated species together—bacteria and corn, for instance.

Innates are lured to be less prone to bruising than everyday potatoes. They also produce less of the chemical acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen that forms when potatoes are deep fried, a benefit for consumers, according to Merck.

The second major difference is that bioengineers altered genes from wild and domestic potato varieties—not unrelated species—to create Innates. Simplot used a a technology called RNA interference, which deactivates specific genes—in this case those that cause potatoes to develop brown areas where bruised and those that cause the plant to make acrylamide.

Consumer advocates are none too happy about Simplot’s new form of genetic manipulation. “We simply don’t know enough about RNA interference technology to determine whether 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,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, director of sustainable agriculture at the Center for Food Safety (CFS) in a press release.

The CFS claims that analysis of RNA interference by a panel of independent scientists requested by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that there were many significant uncertainties about potential risks from this technology, and that current risk assessment procedures were not adequate.  “Despite such cautions, USDA is rushing the technology forward,” the group says.

Ultimately Innate’s fate, like that of Newleaf, may rest with consumers who don’t like the idea of  a bunch of bioengineers messing with their fries.

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