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Genetic modification likely for potatoes, researcher says

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Study sees more support for using potato genes in other potato varieties


By MATTHEW WEAVER


Capital Press


KENNEWICK, Wash. -- A University of Idaho researcher says he's optimistic efforts to develop genetically modified potatoes will resurface.


Joseph Guenthner, a UI professor in Moscow, Idaho, said he believes it's possible the organic industry or environmental organizations may one day accept biotech potatoes developed using traits from other potato plants.


Efforts to develop biotech potatoes date back to the 1980s, Guenthner said. Efforts failed due to export market concerns or political pressure by groups like Greenpeace, he said.


"Four decades of scientific and economic activity and we don't have a commercial GM product on the market now," he said.


Simplot continues to be involved in developing genetically modified potatoes, Guenthner said.


"It's not just Simplot who is working on GM potatoes," Guenthner said. "There are people at universities and other agri-businesses who are developing products I think would be great for producers and consumers."


He and a graduate student surveyed industry representatives for the company to determine the likelihood biotech potatoes would find acceptance in the marketplace.


His study determined there was potentially more support for biotech potatoes using traits from other potato plants than those using traits from other species.


Farmers are most interested in traits that increase yields and water and nutrient efficiency, but consumers are interested in traits that improve nutrition and have cancer-fighting properties.


The study also found more potential acceptance if processors have strict guidelines for growing and handling biotech potatoes. That includes fields and equipment designated for biotech use only, planting and harvesting biotech crops last and delivering potatoes directly to the buyer from the field to avoid mixing them with nonbiotech potatoes in storage. Trucks carrying biotech potatoes would be tarped to avoid potential potatoes falling off and mixing with nonbiotech potatoes.


Two other scenarios were also considered. In one, growers would make their own decisions on keeping biotech and nonbiotech potatoes separate. The third scenario had elements of both of the others.


Guentner noted that the stricter scenarios held a potential for a range of less than 1 to 2 percent contamination. His goal is for less than 2 percent contamination. Most foreign markets tolerate up to 5 percent contamination.


According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, there is no generally accepted informal tolerance of biotech material. The presence of biotech material in organic products may lead to investigation by the USDA National Organic Program as a possible violation of USDA organic regulations.


Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington Potato Commission, said new biotech potato products are essentially transfers of traits from potato to potato.


Any farmer is likely to embrace the technology, but wants customer acceptance before growing a biotech variety, Voigt said.


"Last time a GM potato was introduced, it had significant impact on our exports and some of our domestic markets," Voigt said. "We don't want to repeat that."



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