by Justine Alford
Photo credit: United Soybean Board, "Potatoes," via Flickr. CC BY 2.0The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has just given the go ahead for farmers to start commercially growing several different genetically modified potatoes, the New York Times reports. The potatoes, which come in Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic Varieties, have been engineered to produce less of an ingredient that can turn into a cancer-causing agent when fried. The potatoes also resist bruising, a common occurrence in harvesting and transport which can reduce their value or even render them unsellable.
The new varieties, which have been dubbed “Innate” potatoes, were developed by Idaho-based biotech company JR Simplot. The potatoes are joining a new generation of GM foods that are designed to benefit both the farmers and the consumers, rather than just the growers as, for example, herbicide or pesticide resistant varieties would. Several GM apple varieties, for instance, were recently created which take longer to brown when sliced, although these “Arctic apples” have yet to receive approval.
To achieve the improved qualities, Simplot scientists added desirable genes to the tubers that are naturally found in other cultivated and wild potatoes. The genes encode a system that results in decreased production of an amino acid (the building block of proteins) called asparagine. Although asparagine is found in many foods, it’s produced in high concentrations in some varieties of potatoes. When heated to high-temperatures, for example during frying or baking, it can form a chemical called acrylamide if the right sugar molecules are present. French fries and potato chips have been found to contain particularly high levels of acrylamide when compared with other foods.
Lab investigations found that the Innate potatoes produced between 50 to 75% less acrylamide when fried than non-engineered varieties, but overall the levels of other nutrients were unaffected. Although it’s known that acrylamide is a toxic chemical, the benefits of these potatoes to consumers are hazy at this stage.
While acrylamide is listed as a “probable human carcinogen,” at the moment it is unclear whether eating foods with a higher acrylamide content can actually increase the risk of developing cancer. The World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization have also stated that the levels of acrylamide in foods pose a major health concern, but they call for further investigation as the risk of dietary exposure to the chemical has yet to be determined. So if we don’t know how much, or how little, acrylamide we have to eat for it to be bad for our health, we can’t be sure that reducing it in foods is going to have any positive effects. That being said, reducing the likelihood of bruising will definitely benefit growers.
Because the Innate varieties were created by adding in genes from other potatoes, rather than different organisms, Simplot are hopeful that consumers will be more welcoming of the crops. However, realistically it’s unlikely that this will sway anti-GMO advocates, and some have already complained that the technology has not been adequately regulated and thus approval should not have been granted this early. One group has also pressed McDonald’s to not use the potatoes, despite the fact that Simplot have been a major supplier of frozen French fries to the chain since the 1960s.