GMO Potato Concerns

We sold out of true potato seeds very quickly this year.  Normally, people buy one packet and that is usually done along with a larger order.  This year, over a period of a few weeks, we had a lot of orders for nothing but potato seed and in quantities of 4 packets or more.  That’s a lot of potato seed!  A lot of questions came along with those orders and the questions revealed the reason for much of the interest: GMO potatoes.

If you haven’t heard, the USDA approved a new line of GMO potatoes last year.  Although these aren’t the first genetically engineered potatoes, they are the first on the market in over a decade.  The previous GE line, NewLeaf, was introduced in 1995 and discontinued in 2001.  Due to both the way that GMOs are licensed and the way that potatoes are grown, it is unlikely that anyone kept any in cultivation past 2002 outside of research plots.

The new line of potatoes are named Innate.  Presumably, this name is meant to help convey the idea that these potatoes have been created by the insertion of genes from a different potato species, rather than from a more evolutionarily distant source.  These genes suppress the expression of other genes through a process known as RNA interference (RNAi or “gene silencing”).  This results in two novel traits for the Innate potato: it resists bruising/browning and produces less acrylamide, a suspected but unproven human carcinogen.

A lot of people are afraid of GM foods. Fear makes people overreact sometimes (in my estimation, of course), as has been illustrated by customers this year trying to place large orders to secure “lifetime supplies” of seed.

So, if you’re feeling anxiety about GMO potatoes, let’s look into the details a bit.  Knowledge gives you the ability to make better informed decisions, which will hopefully reduce stress and save you money.  There are three areas that I will cover: The first is the difference between the new GMO potatoes and most other GM crops; the second is the ramifications of interaction between GMO and conventional potatoes; and the third is strategies for identifying and avoiding GMO potatoes.

If you are strongly anti-GMO and just don’t want to read anything remotely positive about GMO potatoes, you can skip over this first section.  I know this subject makes a lot of people angry and the purpose of this post is to reduce stress, not increase it.

1. Innate vs. Most Other GMOs

The Innate potatoes are interesting because they are kind of an intermediate between traditional plant breeding and transgenic engineering.  The Innate potato uses genes from other potato varieties and species to stop the expression of genes in an existing potato variety.  So, this result might have been achieved through traditional plant breeding; it would just take a long time (and probably too long to make it a profitable endeavor).  We still don’t really know what additional, as-yet unobserved phenotypic changes might result from the alteration.  (More tritely expressed: we don’t know what we don’t know.)  However, we never really know with conventional breeding either.

The Innate potatoes are even more interesting because they are one of very few GMO varieties that have traits that directly benefit the consumer rather than the industrial agriculture system.  Most GMO crops have been altered to either poison pests or to tolerate poisons.  I can’t think of anything less compelling to the consumers of those crops.  They make it possible to maximize profits by suppressing nature as thoroughly as possible.  The reduction of acrylamide in Innate potatoes probably makes them healthier to consume when we cook potatoes in less healthy ways.  Yeah, not exactly a resounding endorsement, I guess, but it is a step in a better direction.

Of course, this trait goes hand in hand with a resistance to bruising.  That is probably the money-maker in these varieties and, as you might expect, it offers a potential profit bump to industrial agriculture, but very little to consumers. While trimming up potatoes, I’ve never found myself thinking that we must find a high tech way to avoid ever having to cut bruises out of potatoes again.

So, does it solve real problems for people who eat potatoes?  Maybe a little.  But even a little is a big change from most varieties that offer the consumer nothing but a lower price and a heap of poisons.

The tragedy of genetic engineering is that it has fantastic potential, but we mostly use it in ways that have no conceivable benefits to the people who consume the crops.  We could be increasing nutrition, improving yields, adapting crops to harsher climates, and to perform better without any pesticides or herbicides.  Instead, we have focused on keeping plants alive as long as possible while soaking them in poison.  So, whatever else it is, at least the Innate potato is not that.

2. Interactions Between GMO and Conventional Potatoes

One of the major objections to GMO crops is that they may cross with conventional crops and transmit their foreign genes into traditional varieties.  Although I think this concern is overblown, there is no question that it can and does happen.  It is, however, much less of a concern with potatoes than most crops.

Potatoes are almost exclusively propagated vegetatively by replanting tubers, which are clones.  They don’t differ substantially from one generation to the next and cannot incorporate genes from other potato varieties, because there is never a stage of sexual reproduction.  Potato breeders use true potato seeds to produce new varieties, but almost nobody else other than hobbyists uses true potato seeds to grow potatoes.  Many potato varieties don’t flower or set seed at all in most climates.  Most potatoes are harvested before any berries that are formed actually mature and the harvest of potatoes, which typically involves killing the plants and then running a harvester through the soil, leaves almost no possibility of volunteers from seed.  Even if, by some miracle, you got some volunteers from seed, what would they cross with in the midst of a massive monoculture of potato plants?  So, I’d rate the odds of Innate’s wild potato genes creeping into conventional potatoes as very low.  But not zero.  Zero happens in the lab, but rarely in nature.

I can envision a scenario by which these genes escape.  It isn’t from an industrial monocrop, but more likely from a home garden.  The first requirement that we need to satisfy is the growing of an Innate variety and other conventional varieties in close proximity.  Potato pollen doesn’t travel very far, even with abundant insect pollination.  By 100 yards, the odds are probably asymptotically approaching zero.  (This is not based on any hard information, just my observations as a potato grower.)  The second requirement is that the varieties present actually flower and set seed successfully.  This is actually not all that likely in most climates.  The third requirement is that the grower is intentionally saving true potato seed or is a lazy enough weeder that potato berries will fall and remain on the ground to germinate in the following year.

Let’s say that Bob the frugal gardener wants to grow some potatoes and save a bunch of true potato seed.   Because he is so frugal, he buys his seed potatoes at the grocery store.  Not being aware of GMO potatoes or not paying close attention, he buys an Innate variety.  One of the Innate varieties is based on the conventional variety Atlantic, which flowers and sets seed pretty easily in favorable climates.  Bob’s neighbor is probably not affected, even if he saves true potato seed, but Bob’s closely spaced potatoes get thoroughly crossed up with the Innate version of Atlantic.  It will probably end there, with Bob growing out his potato seeds, none the wiser.  But, if he shares them with his friends and family, the crossed up varieties start to spread.  Again, it isn’t likely, but unlikely things happen all the time.

There are some simple things Bob could have done to prevent this situation, but he needed the right information.  That is the focus of the next section.

3. Identifying and Avoiding GMO Potatoes

If any of the above left you feeling depressed, I’m happy to report that avoiding GMO potatoes in your garden will be pretty easy and in your diet only a little more difficult.

Roughly 99.99% of people who grow potatoes in their garden will do so from tubers and never give much thought to growing potatoes from true seed.  If you’re one of them, life is easy.  Buy your seed potatoes from a reputable supplier of certified seed tubers.  They provide standard varieties that are maintained as clones and there is no possibility that they will be crossed with new GMO varieties.  If you are really paranoid about GMO contamination, don’t buy potato varieties that didn’t exist before 1995.  (I think that is unnecessary, but it is as certain as you can get.)

If you are one of the .00001% (or less) that might grow potatoes from true seed, know your grower.  Don’t swap seeds with Bob’s cousin’s wife.  Don’t buy potato seeds from China on eBay.  Most people who are breeding potatoes and producing true seed will know what they are doing and will avoid working anywhere near a GMO potato field.  Talk to your grower.  If he got his potatoes from the grocery store and asks you what a GMO is, run away.  Otherwise, you’re likely to be talking to a very well educated, alert, and careful practitioner of traditional plant breeding who won’t steer you wrong.

What about store-bought potatoes, processed foods, and restaurant fare?  First, as far as I’m aware, the Innate potato has not yet been picked up by grocers.  So, for now, you’re unlikely to see GMO potatoes at the grocery store but that may not last forever.  There is a foolproof method of avoiding GMO potatoes at the grocery store: buy Organic or Naturally Grown.  It is really that easy.  You will also be voting with your dollars for more Organic potato production.  Better yet, buy from a farmer’s market or farm direct where you have the opportunity to talk to the person who grew your food and can tell you where it came from.

Processed and restaurant foods are more challenging.  When it comes to processed foods, one solution is: don’t eat them.  Seriously, GMO or not, most of that stuff is not good for you.  If you must eat processed foods, look for those labelled by the Non-GMO Project, a voluntary association that certifies processed foods.  At restaurants, the best policy is to ask if their potatoes are Organic.  If not, odds are still very good that the potatoes are non-GMO, but this is another opportunity to vote with your dollars; there are plenty of restaurants out there that serve Organic food.

In conclusion, please don’t panic.  You can avoid GMO potatoes with some pretty simple investigation.  They won’t contaminate traditional varieties, unlike more challenging crops like corn and rape, for which contamination is a more serious concern.  You don’t need to spend a bunch of money on a supply of doomsday potato seeds (not for this reason anyway).  The brains that you were born with and a little information will keep GMO potatoes out of your garden and your diet.

I am not an expert in the genetic modification of potatoes and there is no question that I have glossed over many of the finer details here.  If you would like to read a more in depth discussion of the topic, you might pick up a copy of Pandora’s Potatoes.

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