Genetically Modified Potatoes Clear USDA Hurdle


The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved two types of genetically engineered potatoes for commercial planting. The potatoes are modified to resist the pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine.

“We obviously are very proud of these,” said Doug Cole, a spokesman for the company said to NBC.

Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Co.’s Ranger Russet and Atlantic varieties were approved and are the company’s second generation of Innate potatoes. The company said the potatoes will have reduced bruising and black spots, enhanced storage capacity and reduced amount of a chemical created when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures.

The potatoes’ DNA was altered to reduce the chemical, acrylamide, from being produced. The company calls its product the Innate potato because it does not contain genes from other species.

“We are trying to use genes from the potato plant back in the potato plant,” said Haven Baker, who is in charge of the potato development at Simplot, to The New York Times. “We believe there’s some more comfort in that.”

The bruise-resistant potatoes would help potato growers and processors for financial reasons. Reduction in bruising could reduce waste and increase the top-quality potatoes, which sell more, by 15 percent, Cole said. Company officials said the new potatoes will bring 24-hour protections to farmers’ fields and reduce the use of pesticide spray up to 45 percent.

Genetically modified crops have caused controversy, as some consumers consider the practice unethical and want to know more. While the company only uses potato genes to modify their potatoes, the technique called RNA interference is still not completely understood.

“We think this is a really premature approval of a technology that is not being adequately regulated,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist and senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group.

Gurian-Sherman said his group might try to get a court to reverse the approval of the potato. He said one of the substances suppressed in the Innate potatoes appeared to be important for use of nitrogen by the plant while also protecting it from pests.

The USDA’s assessment said the nutrient levels in the potatoes were in the normal range, except for the substances targeted by the genetic engineering. Simplot submitted the potato for a voluntary food safety review by the Food and Drug Administration.

Gregory Jaffe, a biotechnology project director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he thinks the approval is beneficial.

“We support clearly trying to reduce consumers’ exposure to acrylamide and if this product helps do that, I think it’s a benefit,” Jaffe said.

Forty million pounds of the first generation potatoes have been sold to consumers in more than 35 states, translating to about one percent of all potato sales. Of the 40 million pounds, Cole said about two-thirds went to produce sections of stores.

McDonald’s rejected using Simplot’s first generation of Innate potatoes for its french fries. Simplot was the initial supplier of frozen French fries to McDonald’s in the 1960s and remains a major supplier.