Acrylamide-Reduced Genetically Modified Potatoes Get USDA Approval

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Genetically modified potatoes designed to produce less acrylamide, the cancer-causing chemical released when certain foods like French fries are cooked at high heat, have been approved for commercial planting by the USDA. The potatoes are also less prone to bruising.

Acrylamide levels in the genetically modified potato are 50-75 lower than conventional potatoes, but whether that offers any health benefit to consumers is uncertain. Even the National Cancer Institute is unclear as to what levels of acrylamide in food pose cancer threats to humans.

The genetically modified potatoes, called the Innate, were developed by the J. R. Simplot Company, a Boise, Idaho-based company that began supplying McDonald’s with potatoes in the 1960s.

“The potato is one of a new wave of genetically modified crops that aim to provide benefits to consumers, not just to farmers as the widely grown biotech crops like herbicide-tolerant soybeans and corn do,” Andrew Pollack reports in the New York Times. “But the approval comes as some consumers are questioning the safety of genetically engineered crops and demanding that the foods made from them be labeled.”

What differentiates the Innate potato from other genetically modified crops is that it does not contain genes from other plant or animal species, but fragmented DNA right from a potato plant, in a process called RNA interference, which in essence “silence four of the potatoes’ own genes involved in the production of certain enzymes,” Pollack explains. And future crops, which the company has already applied for approval on, also use potato genes to resist problems like late blight, which was responsible for the Irish potato famine. Simplot is hopeful consumers will find that aspect of the technology more comforting and ease fears they may have about other genetic engineering techniques not used in the Innate.

In the 1990s, Monsanto developed a genetically modified potato resistant to the Colorado potato beetle. But the product was quickly pulled from the market over concerns of consumer backlash. “This time around could be different,” writes Pollack, “because the potato promises at least potential health benefits to consumers. And unlike Monsanto, Simplot is a long-established power in the potato business and presumably has been clearing the way for acceptance of the product from its customers.”

But Pollack notes that at least one group “opposed to such crops has already pressed McDonald’s to reject them.” That group, the Center for Food Safety, says RNA interference isn’t well understood or regulated, and could have potentially harmful human health risks that differ from other GMO technologies. According to CFS, one of the genes being silenced in the Innate potato is significant in nitrogen use and a natural pest control. Turning that off may have unintended consequences. Now, the group may sue the USDA in an effort to reverse approval.

There’s also concern over exports. Countries including South Korea and China have rejected U.S. grown crops that have been contaminated by GMOs, or were feared to be contaminated, and Innate could damage some potato export business.

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.