The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved a second-generation genetically-modified (GMO) potato produced by Idaho-based J.R. Simplot. The company’s Russet Burbank potatoes have been altered to resist the pathogen that produces late blight, the cause of the Irish Potato Famine 160 years ago. Calling the modified potatoes “Innate,” because they do not contain artificial genes, the first generation of the spuds, which were White Russets, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in March. As I had covered in July, GMO products require a complex combination of approvals from the USDA, the FDA, as well as from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before they can reach the market. This currently remains true; however the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy has begun revamping the coordination between the three agencies, in hope of drafting a revised process before the president leaves office in 2017.
Simplot’s vice president of plant sciences Haven Baker noted late blight’s significance both past and present saying, “For historical reasons and current agriculture reasons, this is an important milestone.” Baker noted that late blight still accounts for $5 billion in crop damages annually. The first generation potato was shown to reduce bruising as well as containing less of a chemical that can cause cancer when heated at high temperatures. The second-generation Innate potato contains genes from a specific kind of potato from Argentina that is naturally resistant to late blight. The Russet Burbank potatoes contain the same bruise-resistant genes as the first generation, yet also contain genes that allow them to be stored longer at cooler temperatures, reducing food waste. Baker told the Associated Press, “There are clear benefits for everybody, and it’s just a potato.”
Simplot is hoping that the FDA will approve the blight-resistant potatoes by early 2017, enough time for crops to be ready for consumers by the fall of that year. Since hitting the market, Simplot has sold about 400 acres worth of the first-generation potatoes to supermarkets in 10 Midwestern states. Still, major retail consumers like McDonald’s has so far declined to use the GMO White Russets. Baker refused to consider it a setback, however, saying “Our focus is on the fresh market for the coming year. We think the benefits are clear. We’ve got customers and it’s a place that we’re excited to be. To some degree I think we need to prove that consumers are willing to buy White Russets, and they know what they are and that they see the benefits. Then I think the other parts of the industry will come.” The company plans on planting 2,000 acres worth of the second-generation potatoes upon FDA and EPA approval. Simplot also has a third-generation Innate potato in development that has new genes that reduces a specific virus that makes the potatoes unmarketable.
Food Drive – Carolyn Heneghan
Washington Times/Associated Press – Keith Ridler