GMO Potatoes: A Solution To Key Production Challenges? [Opinion]

The North American potato industry is a complex and wonderful entity. Like everything in the world of agriculture, this industry has its ups and downs, but over the years it has managed to be resilient enough to survive the various batterings it has been subjected to.

Phil Nolte

Phil Nolte

Lately, there have been several pest-related issues that have gotten a lot of attention. One of these is the industry’s perennial nemesis, potato late blight disease. Another is the threat posed by the array of new, recombinant strains of potato virus Y (PVY), some of which have the capability of inducing tuber necrosis symptoms in susceptible varieties.


Yet another of the latest issues is the heavy scrutiny that the neonicotinoid insecticides are coming under. Are these compounds directly responsible for colony collapse disorder as some are claiming? If they’re not having a direct effect, are they contributing to the problem in other ways? The subject is being hotly debated and carefully researched at the current time. Getting the right answer to this question is of crucial importance.

No one wants any harm to come to our vital honey bee populations, yet the loss of these extremely effective insecticides could pave the way for the comeback of potato leaf roll virus (PLRV). PLRV is another serious disease of potato that can cause severe “net necrosis” symptoms in affected tubers. Because of the unique relationship between PLRV and its green peach aphid vector, a single application of a neonicotinoid insecticide, applied at planting, has proven to be almost 100% effective in controlling this once-dreaded disease of potato.

GMO potato: A possible solution?
Enough with the doom and gloom. Are there solutions anywhere on the horizon to any of these problems?

The answer is a qualified yes. Against this backdrop, we have the siren call of the ever-developing and ever-improving science of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Yes, I know, the U.S. potato industry tried an experiment involving genetically modified potatoes way back in the early ’90s and we all saw how that turned out. So how is another go around with this technology going to turn out any differently than the last one did?

Well, for one thing, we can use that first “experiment” as a template for some things not to do. I am also sensing a genuine effort on the part of those championing the technology this time around to open a dialogue within the industry in an effort to figure out the best way to integrate biotech into the potato system, should we decide to embrace it.

Where we go from here remains an open question. Surely the proponents of any new technology can be guilty of making extravagant promises, but in this case we could be talking about the real deal.

Biotechnology has the potential to solve these aforementioned disease problems, plus a few more, while at the same time improving any number of the physiological shortcomings that potatoes suffer from.

Also, as we know from past experience, as soon as we solve one problem, another comes along to take its place. In some cases these new problems were not even on the radar. Think zebra chip, for example. Could biotech provide a solution to this problem as well?

In any case, all of us in agriculture face a future that will be fraught with challenges both old and new. I certainly don’t see conventional, high-input agriculture going through some kind of dramatic upheaval overnight, but who knows?

Environmental issues, pest pressures, and political maneuvering along with changes in public attitudes can force changes, sometimes fairly rapidly. In my opinion, we need to be ready to make use of every tool at our disposal in our ongoing war against pests. They aren’t going to stand still and neither should we.

Time to start talking.

Leave a Reply

Avatar for gary gary says:

as you said in your article the problem we have probably created through use of herbicides and insecticides changing the molecular structure of soil
hundred years ago a lot of what we are experiencing today was never a threat today there is but what happened to the good old fashion way of cleaning something up in soil or clean our environment with things we already have like hydrogen peroxide like baking soda natural plants neem oil or 30 or 40 more natural ants why are not scientists using products.
I asked questions why again why you know the reason why
I have been testing . with natural products in eliminating dog caterpillar shiranka weevil marAmated stink bug, with all natural ingrients.

Avatar for shauram shauram says:

Gary – Some of your assumptions are not true. The things we were experiencing today were significant problems a hundred years ago. The Irish potato famine in the mid 1800’s was caused by a disease which resulted in the starvation of an estimated one million people. This disease is still with us today, but does not have the same effect due to plant protection products. I have worked with hydrogen peroxide personally and I can attest that is is not as effective against late blight as many of the other crop protection materials available today. Additionally, hydrogen peroxide is not effective at all in controlling diseases such as early blight, white mold, and pink rot. Technology in the form of pesticides, plant breeding, and biotechnology have dramatically increased yields and resulted in a safer food supply.

The peer-reviewed scientific data clearly show that the use of technologies such as genetic engineering are safe. Risk is inherent in everything we do, but safety studies have shown that the risk of using pesticides and genetically modified plants is non-existent to low. People tend to ignore the fact that not using these technologies also creates risk in the form of greater spoilage, reduced yields, and higher food prices. The use of GM potatoes to resist infection by viruses would result in a significant reduction in insecticide use. Neem oil has been evaluated on potatoes for control of aphids and the viruses they vector, and has not been as effective as what can be done with genetic engineering.