Unwanted GM Potato

McDonald’s and Frito-Lay say they have no plans to adopt the Simplot GM potato – so who wants it and why? Claire Robinson reports

Simplot’s GM potato “Innate” has been approved in the US but is being shunned by big potato buyers McDonald’s and Frito-Lay, both of whom say they won’t use it. The GM potato is engineered with gene-silencing GM technology to bruise less readily and to contain less cancer-causing acrylamide when cooked at high temperatures.

Acrylamide is formed from an amino acid, asparagine, which occurs in potatoes at varying levels. The Simplot potato is intended to produce less asparagine, so that less acrylamide will be formed on cooking.

However, this GM potato appears to be yet another GMO white elephant. Not only does nobody want to buy it (e.g. McDonald’s and Frito-Lay), but nobody needs it either.

That’s partly because the acrylamide problem may result from bad practices in chemical agriculture – in which case it could be solved by cleaning up those practices. Acrylamide is a building block for the polymer polyacrylamide, which is used in irrigation to stick degraded soil together so it won't blow away. Not only is this practice banned in organic agriculture, it isn’t needed because soil with high levels of organic matter isn’t so prone to blow away. Acrylamide is also an ingredient in herbicides, added to reduce spray drift and improve plant absorption.

The other aspect of the acrylamide issue is that existing non-GMO potato varieties vary hugely in the amount of asparagine they contain, and some contain very little. Asparagine levels (in mmol/kg of fresh weight) have been found in a comparative analysis to range from 1.17 for Agata potatoes to 57.65 for some types of Russet potatoes, a 49-fold variation from lowest to highest value.

Not all Russet potatoes have high asparagine. The Teton Russet is a non-GM potato especially bred for low asparagine and high protein and vitamin C content. It also yields well.

We don’t know how the low asparagine levels in non-GM potatoes compare with levels in the Simplot GM potato – this basic question hasn’t been addressed in any of the articles hyping the supposed breakthrough. But weirdly, the potato that Simplot chose to genetically modify to make the Innate potato was the Russet Burbank, which belongs to a potato family – the Russets – with the highest levels of asparagine, as shown in the comparative analysis cited above.

The obvious question to the GMO potato fans is: Rather than genetically engineering a naturally high-asparagine potato to make it low-asparagine, what’s wrong with existing non-GMO low-asparagine potatoes?

As for bruise-resistance, another trait claimed for the Innate potato, there are plenty of non-GM varieties in the European potato database and the UK Potato Council database. A bruise-resistant potato with moderate resistance to late blight is also available in the Kifli potato from the Sarpo blight-resistant family.

Finally, no animal feeding trials have been conducted on the Simplot GM potato to check for toxicity. There is a transgene (GM gene) in these potatoes. The fact that the gene produces a gene regulatory RNA molecule rather than a protein is irrelevant. It's still a transgenic GMO and thus involves all the unpredictability of the technology. The RNAi (RNA interference or gene-silencing) technology used to develop this GM potato will have additional off-target gene-disturbing effects. It seems these have not been looked into.

So what’s the big deal about Simplot’s Innate potato? Apparently the only unique selling point is that it’s GM and therefore more easily patented in more countries than the non-GM versions.

US fast food giants reject newly approved GM potatoes

Richard Allison
Farmers Weekly, 19 January 2015

Two US food giants have reportedly ruled out using the newly approved genetically modified Innate potato, even before the variety has gone on sale.

In November 2014, US breeder Simplot secured US Department of Agriculture approval for its generation one potatoes, which offer less bruising and a reduction in acrylamide.

Innate is predicted to have the potential to save 18,000t of potato waste each year in the USA due to less bruising.

It also reduces acrylamide, a substance found in a number of products and associated with cancer, by up to 75%. The chemical is produced naturally as a result of cooking starch-rich food at high temperatures, such as when baking or frying.

However, despite the GM potato not yet being commercially planted, there has been immense pressure on food companies, particularly McDonald’s.

These include the Organic Consumers Association petitioning McDonald’s chief executive Donald Thompson in an open letter while Food and Water Watch is running an online petition calling on the company to reject GM potatoes.

Amid the pressure, McDonald’s and major crisp manufacturer Frito-Lay have both confirmed they have no plans to adopt GM potatoes in the future.

“McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practice,” said a company spokesperson in an email to Capital Press, an agricultural website based in Oregon.

The GM debate also intensified in Europe last week, after MEPs voted for legislation that will allow individual member states to restrict or ban the cultivation of GMs on their territory.

This could lead to GM crops being grown in England, as Defra supports the right to grow them, while both the Welsh and Scottish governments are against the growing of GM crops.