Comment Today on the next Genetically Engineered Potato

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Innate Potato next to a conventional one
Innate Potato next to a conventional one

There’s always a little catch-up to do when coming out of the Holiday season. Back in December, the USDA public comment period opened up for a next-generation transgenic potato variety developed by Simplot. The previous Simplot “Generation 1 Innate” potato, which reduced browning, acrylamide, and bruising, was approved by the USDA in November last year. Back in 2013, we conducted an interview with Haven Baker at Simplot to find out answers to your questions about the potato and its new traits. Now they have another potato variety with more traits – Generation 2 Innate – which takes the traits of Generation 1 and adds late blight resistance and further reduces the acrylamide-generating potential of the tubers when you fry them.

There is a lot to discuss about this new variety and its traits, however, the first public comment period for USDA regulations ends today! I wanted to inform our readers about this deadline in case you wanted to submit a comment to this round, and I was able to obtain some more information about the traits from Erik Gonring, who manages Industry Affairs at Simplot. There will be more opportunities in the future to do an interview as we have done before, and feel free to start a discussion below. Indeed, there will be a public comment period for the EPA’s review of the second Innate potato.

Below is the information that I received from Erik, explaining the traits and listing the various benefits that they argue the Generation 2 Innate potato could bring:

Gen. 1 vs. Gen. 2

  • Gen. 1 Innate,  Deregulated  by USDA in Nov. 2014, awaiting FDA clearance; significantly lowered asparagine which means up to 70% less acrylamide formation after cooking vs. conventional. Black spot bruise significantly reduced.
  • Gen. 2 Innate, currently in USDA review; traits from Gen. 1 will be enhanced plus new traits for blight resistance. Further reducing sugars means even less acrylamide and the potential for significant reductions in annual losses from sprouting, shrink and waste.
  • For bruising, sugars and acrylamide reduction, Simplot uses RNAi technology to suppress naturally-occurring enzymes, or “tone down” specific traits in the plants DNA. No foreign genes are inserted.  For blight-resistance, the Rpi-vnt1 gene from a potato plant native to South America is added to achieve the desired trait.

Sustainability: 

  • Fewer chemicals:  Naturally conferring blight resistance and reduced sugars from cold storage means fewer fungicides and herbicides will be applied to crops.  Simplot estimates that blight resistance could result in 25-50% fewer fungicide applications annually, providing both a significant cost-reduction and environmental benefit.
  • Additionally, post-harvest chemical applications of CIPC, an herbicide, can be reduced due to gene silencing that prevents sugar buildup, sprouting and shrink.
  • Resource efficiency:  Gen. 2 Innate potatoes with late blight resistance can be grown and harvested more efficiently than conventional varieties. Compared to conventional Russet’s, Innate Russet’s require fewer chemical applications, less water and land to achieve the same yield.   In fact, if Innate Russet Burbank were used for the existing Fresh market, it would have the potential to save15.2B gallons of water, as well as prevent millions of pounds of waste associated with re-planting, rejected or non-useable crops. Additionally, due to the cold storage and low bruise traits, post-harvest and consumer waste will also be significantly reduced.
  • Growing populations: Additionally, a disease-resistant potato that requires fewer inputs has great potential to benefit resource-scarce parts of the world.

Consumer benefits:

  • Significantly less acrylamide: The second generation of Simplot’s potato will have the lowest level of acrylamide of any potato when cooked at high temperatures – up to 90% less when compared to conventional counterparts.
  • Higher quality potatoes: Consumers will have year-round access to russet varieties with less black spot bruising that occurs during handling and cooking preparation.

The potato industry will benefit from greater yield value, reduction in waste and cost of inputs: Reduced bruising, cold storage and disease resistance with fewer chemical applications provides three significant benefits to growers and packers, helping reduce inputs, optimize harvest quality, volumes and value.

  • Cold storage with reduced sugars: Cold storage can occur at 38 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 9 months, allowing chipping potatoes to be grown and stored without deteriorating value.  Conversion of starch to sugars causes potatoes to shrink and reduces their quality.  Most chippers reject loads with sugar content above 2%, which is approximately 20% of potatoes produced. Currently, potatoes must be treated with CIPC during cold storage to prevent sugar buildup, shrink and sprouting. Innate will reduce the need for additional chemical applications and help potatoes maintain their quality through Winter storage.
  • Higher value yields. Using Innate, it’s possible for a packer to experience an estimated 15% increased pack-out of fresh-grade potatoes, providing better per-acre utilization and value. It’s estimated that reduced shrink, bruising and blight could be worth $53M annually to potato growers in the fresh market alone (based on approx.. 17% of all potato crops).
  • Late Blight resistance:  Using genes native to wildly cultivated potatoes, Innate will be naturally resistant to late blight, the cause of the Irish potato famine.
  • Less waste:  With disease resistance and a higher quality potato that is less likely to be rejected due to bruising and sugar content, growers and packers will waste less, ensuring resources are optimized and organic/food waste is kept to a minimum.

Now for a few comments of my own. Late Blight resistance is an important trait, and can significantly reduce the cost and environmental impact of the pesticides that are used to control this pathogen. While there is late blight resistance in other varieties of potato, what most people don’t realize is that due to market factors from growers to processors to consumers – these very different varieties will have a difficult time gaining acceptance. If the farmer can’t sell them, they won’t grow them. So getting this trait into an elite, modern variety is of tantamount importance.

With potatoes, breeding is not always easy (video), as there are different ploidy levels (how many copies of each chromosome they have) and other breeding factors that make it hard to get the trait in the right variety, and then the potatoes must be bred to have all the other traits that everyone in the supply chain wants and needs. The more distant the potato variety with the trait you want – the longer it will take and the more issues you will have with “linkage drag” – traits that drag along with the one that you want and mess up your breeding. What Simplot has done is taken varieties that already have good traits from breeding, and added the genetically engineered traits on top of them. The genetic cassettes contain genes that come from potatoes, thus this process is known as ‘intragenic’, which differs from “transgenic” because it uses genes from the same or related species, although the genes can be modified from their native state.

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The formation of acrylamide during frying

This is also one of a few new genetically engineered crops that could bring benefits to the consumer. Acrylamide is a neurotoxin, and although it is present in low levels in fried potatoes, it could still be causing harm over the long term. Reducing acrylamide levels is possible to some extent through breeding, and a couple months ago I sat in on a discussion of recent research in potato breeding to address that. Acrylamide is formed when sugars and asparagine in the tuber are heated during the frying process, and breeding has been able to reduce the levels of sugar to impact the production of asparagine. But reducing the asparagine side of the equation has been much more difficult because the levels of this amino acid are very high. Reducing them slightly with breeding does not affect acrylamide levels appreciably. Using genetic engineering is an appropriate tool to generate new variation in asparagine levels that breeders can use to reduce the acrylamide-forming potential of potatoes.

Communicating the exact benefits to consumers will be a challenge, in part because it means that you have to convey the risks and benefits – and uncertainties – effectively, without overplaying the health benefits. If it leads to less toxic compounds in the fried food people currently eat that can be a good thing, but if it gives french fries a health halo – that would not be so good. The potential benefits will not, of course, make fried food a healthy food to eat in excess. It’s still starch fried in oil! Let’s not kid ourselves.

The market question is of course – will the realized benefits be enough to outweigh the stigmas associated with the technology used to generate it? Will it give potato growers an economic incentive to reduce the impacts of their farming operations, or lead to more complications in the potato business? Monsanto’s New Leaf potato was a market failure because large buyers such as McDonald’s did not want to purchase them for making french fries. This is a potato built for frying, so will this time around be different? That’s a fascinating question for discussion.

If you want to have your voice heard during this comment period, you can submit your comment on the Regulations.gov site here. Reference APHIS-2014-0076 when you comment, and there’s time between now and midnight tonight, Eastern US Time.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.