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The History and Future of GM Potatoes
Last week the European Commission approved cultivation and processing of the genetically modified starch potato Amflora. The request for authorisation was submitted by Amflora's developer BASF in August 1996, more than 13 years ago! The scope of the application included cultivation, industrial use and the use of pulp as feed.
Amflora is the first GM crop approved by the EC in 12 years and as such it is a major milestone on a continent that has always strongly opposed GM crops.
The fact that Europe's newly approved GM crop is a potato for industrial starch production rather than food may make this reversal easier to digest: for now, the end product is more likely to be found in your glossy printing paper than on your dining table. And attachment to food is quite different from our emotional involvement with printing paper. Eventually, BASF wants to use Amflora's starch in food as well and has submitted an application to do so.
On the other hand the approval of Amflora is controversial, since the potato contains a resistance gene against an antibiotic, used in the selection of potato plants that successfully express the inserted genetic construct. It's an outdated technique, but we shouldn't forget that Amflora's application dates back 13 year! Nevertheless, the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) has repeatedly judged the product as safe.
Since waste (pulp) of potato starch production is frequently used as feed, such use was included in the application and approved by the EC. BASF has stated that they plan to use Amflora's waste in biofuel production. A wise choice from a PR point of view, given the fact that the approval of GMO in Europe is definitely a "hot potato".
Anyhow, European's will get some time to get used to the idea of a GM crop since the approval of Amflora is too late for widespread use of Amflora for the 2010 crop.
In North America, currently no genetically modified potatoes are commercially grown. But the GM potato has already a colorful history in the US and Canada:
Between 1996 and 2001 Monsanto introduced a range of GM potatoes with resistances against Colorado beetle and PVY virus (Newleaf/Naturemark). Farmers started to grow these potatoes, but the acreage never exceeded 2-3 % of the total potato crop. Major companies such as McDonald's, Wendy's and Frito-Lay refused to use GM potatoes, primarily due to consumer skepticism regarding the unknown environmental and health consequences of GM foods. In 2000 McCain declared to stop processing GM potatoes and other french fry manufacturers followed. Also, US Potato Dehy manufacturers ran into trouble with export to Japan. Since Japan does not accept GM foods, a range of snack foods were recalled after it was found that dehydrated potato products contained GM potato.
In March 2001, Monsanto took the Newleaf potato varieties off the market and since focused on wheat, corn, soybean and cotton. Now, over 90% of the soybean and over 60 % of the corn grown in the US is genetically modified.
Food companies are still very sensible to the opinion of their customer on GM crops. During discussion on the introduction of a potato moth resistant GM potato in South Africa in 2008, both McDonald's and McCain Foods formally opposed the introduction. The South Africa application was declined in 2009.So will we see GM potatoes again in North America shortly?
According to statements last October by John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the National Potato Council, 4 or 5 companies in the US are working on GM potato varieties, but none of these varieties are ready for commercial release, nor have gone through formal regulatory approval. But the US potato industry is working to make the reintroduction of genetically modified potatoes successful: e.g Keeling mentioned the National Potato Council was planning a task force to determine the best way of reintroduction of genetically modified potatoes without disturbing the market place.
Simplot is one of the US potato processing companies that has strategically invested in GM potatoes. Based on Simplot Plant Sciences publications and presentations, the company seems to have the right ideas to get consumers to buy into GM Potatoes:
- Potatoes with benefits for CONSUMERS instead of just for farmers. Think of enhancement of healthy ingredients, reduction of acrylamide, low sugar content (nice golden color) and no discoloration/black spots (PPO suppression).
- Simplot is working towards GM potatoes that do not contain foreign DNA. In its extreme form, this basically eliminates the difference between a potato obtained by regular breeding and genetic modification.
If that is combined with clear information for consumers as well as choice (segregation in the chain - instead of "contaminating" the regular chain past the point of no return) such products might very well be accepted by a majority of the consumers.
In the end, genetic modification is just a technology and - as with so many technologies - HOW the technology is used determines it's acceptability.
Paul van Eijck
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