Spud leaders give GMO guarded endorsement
By John O’Connell
The National Potato Council’s board of directors has officially endorsed the safety and usefulness of genetically modified technology, as well as voluntary labeling of GMO products.
But unofficially, industry leaders retain concerns about how companies advancing GMO potatoes, such as J.R. Simplot, will segregate their biotech tubers and how foreign markets will react.
Officials with the U.S. Potato Board were also involved in writing the position statement on behalf of the industry. NPC President Randy Hardy, an Oakley, Idaho, grower, said having a common, written position on GMOs adopted by both national potato organizations will enable industry leaders to offer a consistent message to the public and media.
NPC also submitted public comment with a guarded endorsement of J.R. Simplot’s proposed Innate line of potatoes, which would reintroduce GMO traits to the potato industry. Simplot’s chairman, Scott Simplot, addressed NPC members about Innate during their recent meeting in Sun Valley.
In NPC’s comments on Innate, Executive Vice President and CEO John Keeling said the industry supports innovation that improves efficiency and benefits both the environment and consumers and believes biotechnology will be a tool to expedite variety development. But Keeling also voiced concern about the potential for GMO technology to disrupt potato exports valued at more than $1.6 billion. His letter emphasizes the importance of identity preservation of GMO potatoes and controlling volunteer seedlings. It also references past market disruptions caused by NewLeaf, a Monsanto GMO potato that’s no longer grown.
“Based on the previous experience of the U.S. potato industry, we suggest that approval of biotech derived products in all major international markets is needed to prevent significant market disruptions,” Keeling wrote.
The second Innate public comment period closed June 30, drawing 367 comments, including strong support from crop researchers and industry and strongly worded criticism of “Frankenfood” from GMO opponents. Organizations supporting Innate included Washington Friends of Farms & Forests and the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.
“The American and Idaho Farm Bureaus support biotechnology and believe this is an opportunity to develop potato varieties which improve marketability to the final consumer,” wrote IFBF President Frank Priestley.
Simplot expects approval of Innate, which incorporates traits form other potato genes, later this year and commercial planting next season. Haven Baker, general manager for Simplot Plant Sciences, said Innate spuds will bruise 40 percent less, won’t turn brown when cut, will endure cold storage without elevated sugars, resist blight and have 70 percent less acrylamide, which may contribute to cancer.
“Simplot is pleased by the support from the potato industry as reflected by the NPC comments to the USDA,” Baker said. “With industry support, we can advance better potato varieties for the industry, which will lead to better grower returns, higher quality for processors and overall consumer satisfaction.”
Some of Hardy’s fresh potatoes are diverted for dehydration, a sector that’s especially concerned about how markets including Japan will react to Innate.
“I’ve had a really hard time that a company can put out a product that can be harmful to my market, and I can’t do anything about it, but that’s the way it is,” Hardy said.