A new genetically modified potato has gotten the stamp of approval from USDA, but not from McDonald’s.
The “Innate” potato was engineered by the J.R. Simplot agribusiness company to bruise less and to produce less of a potentially cancer-causing compound when fried. The USDA recently deregulated the genetically modified organism, allowing it to be grown without restriction.
J.R. Simplot is a major french fry supplier to McDonald’s, but the fast food chain says it has no plans to switch from conventional varieties.
“McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practice,” a company spokesperson said in an email to Capital Press.
That’s not a surprise or even much of a disappointment for J.R. Simplot, which isn’t currently gearing its new potato for the fast food market.
The company plans for the potatoes to sell as whole spuds and in the “fresh-cut” form similar to pre-sliced apples.
“It’s the fastest growing segment of the fresh produce market,” said Doug Cole, spokesman for J.R. Simplot.
The Innate cultivar incorporates genes from other types of potatoes, offering a longer shelf life for consumers and reduced waste for farmers and shippers.
Regular fresh cut potatoes already have a foothold among hotels and other institutional food service providers, but Innate spuds offer an advantage because they don’t require preservatives or additives to prevent them from turning brown, he said.
Simplot also hopes the pre-cut tubers will break into the consumer market.
“It should be a shot in the arm for the potato industry to have a brand new sector in which to compete,” Cole said.
While the company is optimistic about Innate’s future, genetically engineered potatoes have failed to gain traction in the past.
Monsanto got the USDA to deregulate five varieties of biotech potatoes that offered resistance to disease and insects, but none of them caught on.
J.R. Simplot has conducted a survey that shows most consumers see Innate technology as akin to traditional breeding, since the variety incorporates genes from wild and cultivated potatoes rather than totally unrelated species.
However, food industry experts say the debate over GMOs is so divisive that it’s unclear how much room there is for nuance.
To gain acceptance, Innate potatoes will have to overcome the misgivings of some consumers as well as farmers, with each group having different reasons to feel uneasy about the crop, experts say.
“This whole GMO thing is so polarizing. It really doesn’t seem to matter what the facts are,” said Tom Gillpatrick, executive director of the Food Industry Leadership Center at Portland State University.
On one hand, Innate has several advantages over previous biotech potato cultivars, he said.
Aside from the consumer benefits and lack of non-potato genes, J.R. Simplot’s variety isn’t associated with herbicide resistance — a common target of GMO critics who claim such traits lead to people ingesting toxic chemicals, Gillpatrick said.
Also, outside agriculture, J.R. Simplot isn’t as commonly known as Monsanto, a brand that is highly villified by activists, he said.
“They should change their name to Darth Vader,” Gillpatrick joked.
The fact that McDonald’s won’t be using the potatoes for fries also reduces the chances for controversy, since the chain is already a target among activists who claim its food is unhealthful, he said. “McDonald’s does not need to be the poster child for people attacking it. It’s got enough problems.”
Fewer people are likely to pay attention to Innate potatoes if they’re simply sold in grocery stores or through institutional food service providers, Gillpatrick said. “That’s going to be less visible.”
On the other hand, activists can figure out which companies are using Innate potatoes and single them out for criticism, he said. In that event, the level of public backlash would depend on how much success GMO critics have in stirring up fears about the variety.
J.R. Simplot’s poll of consumer acceptance indicates that people respond to education about the cultivar, said Michael Sansolo, a food industry consultant and former senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute.
It’s unlikely that survey participants knew about Innate potatoes beforehand, so J.R. Simplot probably had to explain the technology, he said.
“If it’s in the same species, that may lead people to think, ‘This can happen anyway,’” Sansolo said. “Transparency really does battle secrecy.”
The primary concern among potato farmers and shippers is quite distinct from the consumer debate.
They worry about J.R. Simplot’s ability to keep the variety out of export markets in which it’s not approved, said Aaron Johnson, an agribusiness management professor at the University of Idaho.
Monsanto’s earlier biotech potatoes caused a trade disruption with Japan, which does not accept GMO spuds and temporarily stopped buying potatoes from the U.S. when some were found in an incoming shipment.
With that in mind, J.R. Simplot asked the University of Idaho to find ways of growing “identity preserved” Innate potatoes to ensure the variety doesn’t escape into unwanted market channels, Johnson said.
Among the university’s recommendations was dedicated machinery and isolation distances for Innate fields, he said.
These “best practices” should help with Innate’s market acceptance among growers and shippers, but the introduction is nonetheless likely to meet with anxiety, Johnson said. “I’m sure it’s going to make a number of people nervous, no matter what you do.”