Government and Business

Simplot's GMO potato plan advances

The Boise agribusiness says that its Innate spuds reduce waste. But farmers might struggle to sell them.

zkyle@idahostatesman.comJune 18, 2014 

Simplot's Innate-brand Russet Burbank potatoes

Simplot says its Innate-brand Russet Burbank potatoes, left, don’t brown as quickly as conventional Russet Burbank potatoes after 30 minutes of being peeled or diced.

PROVIDED BY J.R. SIMPLOT CO.

The developers of J.R. Simplot Co.'s genetically modified line of potatoes say their bruise-resistant spuds could increase yields for farmers and decrease costs for shoppers. But french fry makers and other potato processors might not buy from farmers growing the biotech Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic potatoes, which could receive regulatory approval and head to the market in the fall.

Rupert potato and sugar-beet farmer Duane Grant says harvesting Innate potatoes, which are resistant to black-spot bruising, would result in farmers throwing away fewer damaged crops and producing more fresh-grade potatoes that fetch the highest prices. However, he won't be able to plant Innate seeds once they are available, because his buyers won't touch them.

"I'm sure they are getting push-back from their customers - the McDonald's of the world," Grant says. "They don't want to run the risk of being picketed by activists, because they have potatoes that are derived from, frankly, a much improved plant that brings all kinds of advantages."

Innate potatoes have been grown in testing fields for years and are now under review by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Simplot General Manager of Plant Sciences Haven Baker, in Boise, says he expects the potatoes to receive approval for market this summer.

The biotech potatoes rearrange the genes from spuds - and none from other organisms - to produce crops with the following attributes:

• Reduced black-spot bruising, which can affect up to 5 percent of crops. Innate potatoes could cut waste by 400 million pounds a year worth $87 million, if they replaced all other potato crops nationwide, Haven says.

• Reduced potential to carry acrylamide, a human neurotoxin that can appear in potatoes and other starchy foods cooked at high temperatures.

• Reduced sugars, which cause browning in potatoes similar to rapid browning in sliced apples.

In addition, Haven says the increased efficiency for farmers could translate to more than $1 billion in yearly savings for consumers.

Grant, who farms 7,000 acres of potatoes, said price penalties on black-spot bruising can cost farmers between $200 and $250 per acre. He says he's frustrated that the companies that buy his potatoes have taken a hard line against biotech spuds, saying they won't buy unmodified potatoes from farms that also grow Innate.

"They are essentially blacklisting any producer who plants even 1 acre of Innate potato," Grant says.

Middleton's Jennifer Easely co-founded GMO Free Idaho, which opposes biotech foods and advocates labeling foods containing genetically modified plant and animal products. Easley says there's more risk than reward to approving Innate potatoes for sale and consumption.

"The GMO products approved by the USDA so far have caused unintended consequences regarding pest and weed resistance, cross-contamination and a rejection of our products overseas, thus exposing our growers to unnecessary risk," Easley said. "The Innate potato carries some of the same risks."

The USDA is now in its second of two public comment periods.

Its first study, in which the USDA determined that the modified traits behaved predictably and safely, was open to comment for 60 days last year.

The second review, which found no environmental effects of the modified potatoes, was opened to comment May 30 and closes June 30. You can read the comments posted so far or post your own at federalregister.gov by typing "Simplot" into the search field.

Haven said Simplot is already testing a second generation of Innate potatoes that would reduce defects caused during storage as well as reduce potential for late blight, the cause of the 1845 potato famine in Ireland. Haven said he's targeting 2017 for regulatory approval.

Zach Kyle: 377-6464, Twitter:@IDS_zachkyle

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