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Four varieties of Innate Generation 1 potatoes: (left to right) Atlantic, Burbank, Snowden and Ranger. (Photo: J.R. Simplot Company)

The Promise of Innate

Why Simplot’s first- and second-generation biotech potatoes are generating interest among commercial growers in Canada.

There’s been plenty of talk in Canadian potato circles this past year about Innate, the genetically modified potato from J.R. Simplot Company that’s been given the green light by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Health Canada.

Those approvals came too late for the product to be grown commercially in Canada in 2016, but don’t be surprised if Innate potatoes make an appearance this year.

Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada, said in early February he expected some commercial producers to try Innate this year, but it was too early to say how many.

Innate technology was developed by the introduction of genes from wild and cultivated potatoes to enhance and suppress specific traits. The Generation 1 potatoes, which have less browning or bruising compared to conventional spuds, and lower levels of asparagine (which turns into acrylamide during frying) are sold under the White Russet brand in the United States.

The Gen 1 potato was approved in Canada in March 2016, and since then Simplot representatives have been busy talking to potato farmers at many of the grower meetings held across the country. According to MacIsaac and Doug Cole, Simplot’s marketing and communications director, there is definitely interest among Canadian producers.

“I think that growers are interested in anything that they think will improve their ability to grow a better crop and improve their profitability,” MacIsaac says. “There’s less black spot [and] fewer bruising effects to the potato with this new trait. Growers want to ensure they have the most marketable product going out the door. There will be less waste by growing this particular kind of potato and I think they will be attracted to that.

“Last year, we thought there was going to be some production [of Innate] in Canada apart from the research trials,” adds MacIsaac. “But the problem was that it was really approved too late in the season in order to allow seed availability and to get seed into the country.”

Cole said in early February: “We’ve been talking to growers [and] we’re gauging interest. We’re not at a point of being able to make a determination yet but that should happen in the next few weeks.”

According to MacIsaac, growers questions around Innate these days involve such things as acreage requirements and seed availability, “whereas a year ago it was more about why is this particular variety better than what we’re growing now, and what do you have to offer to the industry that would make people want to buy it?”

Generation 2 Innate

Growers are also asking questions about the next stage in the Innate rollout — the Generation 2 potato which has enhanced protection against late blight and improved cold storage capability, in addition to the Gen 1 traits.

“We’re getting indications of interest, particularly in the areas where growers see the benefits of not only Generation 1 but also Generation 2,” notes Cole.

Simplot anticipates that three varieties of its Gen 2 potato (Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic) could be approved by CFIA and Health Canada this fall, meaning they potentially would be available to be planted in Canada as early as spring 2018.

Simplot Generation 2 potatoes received final approval from American regulatory agencies in late February, so they can be grown in the U.S. this year.

“The interest is extremely high among chip producers and is high amongst fresh growers, and I think that pickup will be significant,” says Cole. “We’re constrained with how many acres we can put in the ground since there’s the typical ramping of seed production, but we’re betting it will be a big product for us.”

MacIsaac says in terms of the potato chip market in Canada, smaller, independent chip producers would be more likely to consider Innate varieties than the big multinational companies that operate here. “That’s where the interest is as I see it.”

Simplot has also started discussions with retailers and food service operators to assess interest in offering Innate potatoes in Canadian supermarkets and restaurants.

Cole says Simplot is hoping what happens in Canada will mirror the success Innate has had south of the border. “In the U.S., we’ve expanded every year. We’ve sold out of every available crop of White Russet potatoes in all previous two growing seasons and we’re on track for that in our third year,” he notes. ”We are selling in somewhere around 40 U.S. states at about 3,500 retail outlets, with well over 50 million pounds sold. It’s been going very well.

“We’ve had good adoption. We’ve been able to demonstrate the benefits to farmers and translate those to benefits for consumers,” Cole adds.

One important aspect of Simplot’s consumer acceptance strategy is to assure them that Innate potatoes are being grown separately to eliminate any chance of cross-contamination with non-GMO potatoes.

I-SPUD, Simplot’s stewardship program and use directions for Innate, provides instructions for a closed loop production system and urges growers not to plant Innate potatoes that are split, divided or shared with conventional potato plantings in the same crop year.

If a grower does choose to plant a split potato field, they must plan and implement effective physical separation within the field to prevent any handling mistakes or overlaps that could result in commingling Innate with other potatoes. I-SPUD also states that extra diligence in cleaning equipment and preventing equipment traffic between fields with different varieties is critically important.

MacIsaac says there’s a chance the isolation precautions for Innate could discourage some producers from considering the potatoes. “That’s the difficult part. A lot of growers, when they grow fresh, they’ll have a processing contract as well,” he notes, which can make it more challenging to segregate different aspects of production.

Because of the continuing debate over biotechnology, MacIsaac does see the value in demonstrating to consumers that Innate potatoes are not a source of contamination into the other potato stocks. However, he thinks this is a need that will fade with time.

“Once there’s consumer acceptance and everyone sees the rewards from growing the product, then I think it becomes less important,” he says.

Late Blight Protection

Simplot’s Generation 2 Innate potato addresses one of the key concerns growers have today — fighting late blight.

“It is what [growers] spend all summer trying to prevent,” says Kevin MacIsaac , general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada. “Some years you have it, other years you don’t. But you still have to spend money to prevent it.”

According to Doug Cole, Simplot’s marketing and communications director, growers in parts of the U.S. and Canada can spray up to 20 times a year for late blight. The late blight protection in Generation 2 potatoes, he says, saves farmers money because there are far fewer fungicide applications required in crop. The cold storage trait, which allows Gen 2 potatoes to be stored as low as 4 C, results in more savings, he adds.

“That is a significant benefit as well because you can reduce the sprouting process and you can reduce the disease pressures in storage by storing colder,” says Cole. “That has a quality benefit associated with it and then real dollar savings with the reduction of chemicals.”

According to Cole, fewer chemical applications is just one of the Innate attributes that more consumers are looking for in a potato these days. “They want less pesticides, they want a healthier overall potato and they really want what they paid for,” he says. “Our research tells us they’re sick of having to throw away a third of their potatoes due to black spot bruising.”

Research is well underway in the development of the next version of Innate, which is a potato with increased water and nitrogen use efficiencies.

“We’ve got some promising results that will allow us to get an increase in yield with much less water applied to potatoes. That is exciting for us because we know that our farmers struggle with consistent water levels and drought and sustainability pressures,” Cole says. “That should come down the road in the next five years or so.”

MacIsaac maintains Innate’s efforts to produce a potato that uses water and nitrogen more efficiently is a prime example of a company that is looking ahead. While water availability may not be foremost on the minds of most growers in Canada today, he says “down the road it will be. The ability to use less nitrates and [less inputs] into the environment is an appealing trait as well.”

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