Simplot is preparing to roll out the first generation of its GM potato in a produce department near you.
Imagine walking into a grocery store in the future and finding fresh potatoes pre-cut, packaged and ready to cook.
It’s a product the J.R. Simplot Company is envisioning thanks to its genetically modified Generation 1 Innate potato, which was given the green light by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada earlier this year.
Canadian approval came too late for them to be grown commercially in this country in 2016, but the company still intends to begin selling Gen 1 Innate potatoes imported from U.S. in produce departments across Canada starting this year.
“We got the approval at the end of March which was too late for us to approach growers and get commitment to grow them this year,” says Doug Cole, director of marketing and communications for Simplot Plant Sciences.
Cole says bringing the first generation Innate potato to Canada opens up a world of possibilities for consumers. The non-browning, low-acrylamide GM potato is already being sold in the U.S. under the White Russet brand, and the product is seeing some big success there, Cole says.
“We’re encouraged by the first year of sales in the U.S. It’s in 1,500 retail outlets across 25 states, and we’ve increased our fresh potato acreage from a few hundred acres to 1,000 last year, and that shot up to 4,000 acres this year,” he says. “Farmers are growing them about as fast as they can.”
The “Gen 1” Innate potato is less susceptible to black spot from bruising caused by impact and pressure during harvest and storage than conventional potatoes, and won’t turn brown when peeled.
The product also has lower levels of asparagine and sugars, meaning less acrylamide has the potential to be produced when cooked. Acrylamide has been linked in some studies to increased rates of certain types of cancer, although the link has yet to be proven conclusively.
“It seems like we’re at the right place at the right time with the right product,” Cole says.
The Gen 1 Innate potato is the first GM potato to be approved in Canada with consumer traits. Simplot was able to reduce bruising and browning of their potatoes by up to 44 per cent by inserting genes from other wild and cultivated potato species into their genetic makeup to silence negative traits.
According to Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada, the first generation Innate potato signals a significant shift in the fresh potato market in Canada.
“Simplot has gone right into the fresh market with this, which is a big change from when other companies have rolled out new potato products in the past,” MacIsaac says.
“When I talk to people in the U.S. who have been marketing and growing it, they say they’re sold out. It takes a while for people to try a new product, but when people tried it, small chip vendors and so forth, they saw how well it worked and they didn’t have to be up half the night peeling potatoes — they could peel them the day before. They were sold on it almost immediately.”
Such enthusiasm has Cole envisioning products like the previously mentioned pre-bagged, refrigerated fresh-cut potatoes with a shelf-life of up to two weeks. Right now in Canada, such a product would be impossible to offer to consumers, considering that the potatoes would quickly turn brown once cut.
The only way to make them stay fresh in the package is to treat them heavily with a preservative, something that defeats the purpose of a fresh-cut product, Cole says. “With the Innate potato, it’s just potato.”
The benefits and possibilities for the retail sector made possible by a non-browning potato are obvious, according to Nova Scotia-based retail consultant Peter Chapman. He likens the first generation Innate potato to the non-browning Arctic Apple, a GM product approved by Health Canada in 2015.
“There are a lot of reasons why this kind of product is good for the consumer in terms of reducing food waste and that kind of thing,” Chapman says.
Consumers throw away about 30 per cent of their potatoes either due to bruising or sprouting, according to data from Simplot.
Peter VanderZaag, the Ontario grower and owner of Sunrise Potato Storage who’s also an internationally renowned potato scientist, believes the Innate potato will build on the innovations made possible by the Arctic Apple.
“To me, the Arctic Apple has blazed a partial trail for the Innate potato to follow in its footsteps,” he says.
Dealing with GMO Concerns
Despite enthusiasm for the product within the industry and potential demand among consumers, VanderZaag says the fact it is a GM potato will no doubt rub some people the wrong way.
“That requires educating the public about the real benefits of these technologies,” he says.
Chapman believes efforts to educate the public about GM foods like the Innate potato are crucial to the success of such a product in the retail sphere.
“We haven’t really seen this in the fresh market in Canada yet. If you’re eating cereal that contains GM corn or soy that comes out of a box, that’s one thing. But in the consumer’s mind, when you’re eating fresh, there’s a perception that you’re a bit closer to the GM technology,” he says. “It’ll be interesting to see what the response from the consumer will be.”
Cole says that in the United States, Simplot has launched a comprehensive educational campaign, including the website whiterusset.com, to inform consumers about GM technology and to appease any concerns they might have. The bag that White Russet potatoes come in also features a QR code and a toll-free number that consumers can call for more info.
According to Chapman, though, there are some loud voices in the retail sector that make such efforts at educating the public a huge challenge. He points to grocery chain Whole Foods, which will require all GM foods on its shelves to be labelled as such by 2018.
“Retailers like Whole Foods are leaders in terms of quality and providing positive eating experiences for people who say they want full transparency for genetically modified foods,” Chapman says.
“When you read the Whole Foods website, it essentially tells the consumer that GMOs could potentially pose a risk to health and the environment. They don’t say they actually do, but they suggest that these products could. When consumers are exposed to that kind of thing from an influential source like Whole Foods, they tend to pay attention.”
Just the Beginning
Despite the potential backlash from some consumers opposed to GMOs, Cole says if the reaction in the United States is any indication, the first generation Innate potato will see significant success in the Canadian marketplace.
He doesn’t see the GMO issue as a serious barrier — in fact, he says Simplot views the situation as a good opportunity to educate the public about biotechnology and its benefits for the environment and consumers.
To comply with recently passed legislation in Vermont, Innate potatoes sold in that state will soon have to have a label on the bag identifying them as a GMO. Cole says the White Russet potatoes will most likely be labelled nationwide and this could extend into Canada if requested by retailers and growers.
“We found that for consumers who are interested or concerned, once they understand these are just potato genes improved through biotechnology and nothing foreign has been added, they’re accepting of it. It’s a process that is very similar to traditional breeding,” Cole says.
The Next Generation
After the successful introduction of the first generation Innate potato in the U.S., Simplot is preparing to unveil the second generation of the product in the coming months. The Generation 2 Innate potato has already received approvals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, and Simplot is now awaiting approval from the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to Cole, the second generation Innate potato takes the product to another new level by adding traits for late blight resistance and enhanced cold storage capability.
Simplot expects the Gen 2 Innate potato to be approved in Canada in the next two years. With resistance to late blight and the ability to store the potato at colder temperatures, growers and storage facilities won’t require as many sprays and other chemicals, which will be a big boon to the industry, Cole says.
“Anytime you can reduce sprays and amount of waste from discarded potatoes, it’s a good thing.”
According to Cole, Simplot has approached producers in Prince Edward Island about growing test plots of Generation Two Innate potatoes on their farms.
VanderZaag says the second generation Innate potato will be a game changer for the potato industry in Canada.
While the first generation Innate potato is a huge benefit to consumers, adding late blight resistance will be huge for growers. That’s an even bigger leap forward,” he says.