Nobody likes a rotten potato. The Irish in 1845 certainly did not like rotten spuds. Scientists and farmers have been trying to save potato crops for hundreds of years. And potatoes have some other qualities that make them hard to handle…they bruise easily and turn funky colors when peeled and exposed to the air.
The Age of GMO
The term “GMO” strikes fear in many. But the truth is, genetic modification has many faces. There are numerous techniques used in biotechnology to modify the traits of plants by manipulating genes. Genetic modification also occurs naturally when plants cross-polinate, and many GMO products are produced with nearly natural methods. Making GMO plants in a controlled setting is usually much more efficient than spending years trying to breed new traits into plants.
However, some GMO methods are considered “iffy” even by top scientists. For instance, many agricultural crops have been made resistant to attack by caterpillars and other insects by inserting genes from a bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis) into the genome of the plant to be protected. Known as Bt crops, this technique of GMO is widely used and readily approved by the FDA and EPA for use in human and animal foods. Bt spores have been used for many years (centuries?) as a pesticide against invasive worms, but when used as a spray, it can be easily washed off the plant before eating. When incorporated into the genes of the plant, you cannot remove it. Some say this is of no concern, while others cry foul.
Other GMO methods are much less intrusive and mimic natural selection in breeding to a greater extent. Gene silencing techniques use the natural traits of DNA to turn unwanted genes off. This happens in nature, but man has learned to control it to a great extent. Early experiments with gene silencing created purple petunias but now it’s being looked at as a cure for cancer, Huntington’s, and other human diseases.
In the US, all GMO foods are soon required to carry a label indicating they have been genetically engineered. Unfortunately, the label will not indicate which technique was used or if the plant contains cross-species genes. However, with a bit of homework, I found that potatoes are only being GMO’d using the less invasive techniques, similar to plant breeding.
Have you ever seen what the first potatoes looked like? The potatoes eaten by the first settlers of Peru nearly 10,000 years ago look nothing like supermarket spuds. I doubt those Peruvian folks would even recognize a modern potato.
From a really cool paper on South American root crops (1925):
Contrast with today’s varieties of potato, all created using natural selection from the ancient lines of Peruvian potatoes:
GMO Techniques for Potatoes
In 2014, potato producer JR Simplot introduced a line of bruise-proof potatoes called Innate. These potatoes promised “less waste, more potato,” and were targeted towards the fast-food industry where potato waste costs lots of money.
Innate® potatoes are less prone to bruising and black spots, which means consumers waste less and fewer potatoes end up in landfills. Innate potatoes also contain less asparagine. By producing less asparagine, Innate potatoes provide the potential for the formation of acrylamide to be reduced by 58-72% when potatoes are baked, fried or roasted at high temperatures.
Innate potatoes are modified by silencing the genes that produce asparagine, the protein associated with the darkening seen in sliced potatoes that have been exposed to air or bruised.
According to JR Simplot:
Innate® works with the potato’s own DNA to achieve desirable traits without incorporating any foreign genes.
Now Resistant to Shrinkage!
JR Simplot’s Innate potato is now in version 2.0. Known as Generation 2, the USDA recently approved two more Innate potatoes to be sold as “Ranger Russet” and “Atlantic” varieties. According to Simplot, while Gen 1 was less prone to bruising, 2.0 promises:
Innate® Generation 2 potatoes will feature traits that address several of the major issues facing the potato industry including shrink from cold storage, late blight, sugar ends, sprouting, acrylamide and black spot bruise – providing significant benefits to the entire potato value chain.
Other than these three potatoes (Innate Gen 1, Ranger Russet, and Atlantic), there does not appear to be any more GMO potatoes headed to a grocery store or fast-food joint near you.
One of the very first Bt GMO crops to be developed was NewLeaf Potatoes by Monsanto in 1995, however, demand for this variety was so low that they discontinued the line in 2001.
Another GMO attempt was made to produce potatoes high in amylopectin starch for the production of waxy potato starch. This GMO potato, called Amflora, was approved in the EU in 2010, but withdrawn in 2012 due to lack of acceptance by EU farmers.
Other than that, experiments in GMO potatoes are pretty rare to find.
How to Avoid
If you are dead-set against eating any GMO products, your best bet is to eat only food you’ve grown yourself, or has a certified “organic” label. Do not eat ANY processed foods, snacks, fast-food, or in a restaurant. From a potato-industry journal:
Those first-generation Innate potatoes have been sold mainly in the fresh market, including fresh whole potatoes sold in supermarkets and foodservice. Cole said the Innate potatoes sold broadly through the Southeast and the Midwest, in about 1,000 retail stores in 11 states.
Should you Avoid?
Having studied biotechnology, I see no reason that Innate potatoes should be avoided. There is nothing “non-potato” in an Innate potato. Far better would be to avoid French fries, potato chips, and all manner of processed foods containing modified potato starches and rancid oils. These are the real dangerous foods.
But quite possibly, GMO potatoes such as Innate might be better for us. Potatoes in storage require the use of fungicides to prevent spoilage. According to the American Journal of Potato Research,
Late blight protection similar to Innate could result in the reduction of 1.2 million acre applications of fungicides overall.
I see this as a “win” for the potato industry. I’ve never been a huge fan of large agricultural practices, heavy in pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. If these GMO potatoes need less of a “-cide” it makes me happy.
You may soon hear that there are newly approved GMO potatoes and that GMO is always bad. I do not believe this is the case, but with the new labeling laws, you will be able to avoid GMO foods if you so choose. To be 100% safe, grow your own from certified organic seeds.