GE Potatoes: Is It Time To Start Talking Again?

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In more and more conversations with potato scientists and other industry people I keep hearing references to “GMO” or genetically modified organisms. Considered a somewhat “taboo” subject for the last 10 years, it appears there may be a slight thawing in attitudes regarding this controversial subject. I begin to wonder if it’s time to start considering the advantages of “genetically enhanced” (GE) potato varieties again.

Back in the early 1990s, the potato industry was one of the first to benefit from such modified varieties. The so-called “Newleaf” varieties from Monsanto had a gene added that conferred resistance to the Colorado potato beetle. These genetically enhanced varieties were very effective in managing the serious pest. Disaster struck, however, in early 2001 when snack foods delivered to Japan tested positive for a genetic modification that had not yet been approved in that country. The ensuing furor not only cost a fortune but absolutely banished GMO potatoes, no matter what trait they possessed, from the North American production system.

The fallout from this catastrophe remains with us today. Seed potato producers in Idaho are still required by processors to submit samples of their seed potatoes to a laboratory test to ensure that they contain no GMO traits. It’s hard to blame the processors, as there still remains a justifiable culture of fear over the possibility of finding another GMO positive sample in snack foods or other potato products exported to Japan.

Was this response an overreaction? Difficult to say, but it’s still hard to talk about GMO potatoes with seed or commercial potato producers in the U.S. It’s too bad, really. One of the main attractions of genetically modifying potatoes is the ability to take a well-established variety that has predictable field, storage, table, and/or processing properties and add desirable traits, such as insect, virus, or late blight resistance to them. Who would argue that the potential to utilize virtually the same varieties that we currently use with lower pesticide, fertilizer, and water inputs, doesn’t look extremely attractive?

Bring Value To The Consumer

The problem with the traits I have described so far is the fact that they are all intended to help out the producers and bring little, if any, perceived value to the end user. While it is certainly possible to cast a favorable light on varieties with enhancements that enable lower inputs, this concept is pretty remote to most consumers and they are unlikely to request these traits. More attractive to the consumer would be the addition of traits that they actually want. Perhaps we could add superior nutritional characteristics, like higher protein or enhanced vitamin content, for instance.

Another problem with the earlier modified varieties was that the genes that had been added did not originate from potatoes. The Newleaf gene, so effective on the Colorado potato beetle, had actually come from a bacterium. While most scientists would probably conclude that “a gene is a gene,” there were many outside the scientific community that found such varieties “unnatural” and therefore undesirable. At the current time, there are a number of alternatives to this issue such as utilizing only genes found in the potato or close relatives.

Yet another problem: In the past, varieties with enhanced traits were created and “pushed” through the system. The majority of the people I’ve discussed this subject with believe it would be much more effective if varieties with enhanced traits were pulled through by consumer demand rather than pushed through with obscure, remote promises of “lower inputs” or “improved environmental friendliness.” If and when the potato industry moves forward on embracing varieties with “enhanced” capabilities, it is mandatory that the traits be something that the consumer wants. 

Nolte is extension seed potato specialist, University of Idaho, Idaho Falls, ID.

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2 comments on “GE Potatoes: Is It Time To Start Talking Again?

  1. Matt

    Sounds like an article right out of the Monsanto PR department (Monsanto is the ONLY company to ever commercially produce a GMO Potato). It was not the "GMO Japanese Potato Chip" that sunk GMO potatoes. It was McDonalds and other fast food restaurants who were responding to US CONSUMERS who stated emphatically that they do not want Genetically Modified Potatoes in their food or french frys! McDonalds told their producers that they DO NOT want GMO potatoes. Thus ended the Monsanto GMO Potato commercial viability. The Growth of organic foods around the world should be proof positive that consumers do not want GMO foods. If true labeling were allowed in the USA of foods that contain GMO ingrediants, like in Europe, you would see virtually all GMO products disappear from the market. Instead we have bought off politicians in the USA who subscribe to the GMO industries ideas that consumers would be confused by the labeling. More likely they fear a repeat of the McDonalds incident and death of the GMO seed lines. How about working to develop better hybrids using traditional hybrid techniques? They made a superior potatoe in England that OUTPREFORMED the GMO variety and it was done quite quickly.

  2. Debbie LeBlanc

    Most people I know will never accept genetically engineered crops of any kind. Sadly, the industry mirrors the tobacco industry – full of smoke and lies. For example, Monsanto tampered with the study results from research on their GMO Newleaf potato. (http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=389×229295) As long as the industry refuses to label GMO's, it's safe to say they are hiding something. They do not want to be held liable in lawsuits resulting from the toxic effects of GMO's in the diet for an extended period. And there is enough evidence to support the fact that GMO's are unhealthy for animals, people, and the environment. Grow your own GMO's and eat them yourself, but don't feed them to me.