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.