The Future of GM Potatoes in North America
IT’S ONLY A matter of time before genetically modified potatoes hit the North American market, say industry experts.
“I think GM potatoes are on a one-way street toward acceptance in North America and the world,” says Joe Guenthner, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Idaho.
GM potatoes are following a typical technology-acceptance pattern. After a long introduction stage, with a false start in the 1990s, GM potatoes will soon approach a rapid growth phase, explains Guenthner. Other food technology, such as microwave ovens and artificial sweeteners, had long introductory phases before acceptance became rapid, he notes.
Both public and private researchers are active in GM potato development in North America, says Guenthner. “Some are working on traits attractive to growers, such as late blight resistance. And some researchers are working on traits that are beneficial to consumers, such as low acrylamides.”
Alan Schreiber, president of Agriculture Development Group Inc. in Washington State, says offering GM potatoes with obvious benefits to consumers may also smooth the way for the acceptance of these products in North America.
“I think one of the huge missteps that biotech made in the roll-out of most or all of the early crops was the value to the crops was to the grower, and largely centred around reducing costs or pest pressure. There was no direct or obvious benefit to the consumer,” he says. “If the early biotech crops would have increased vitamins in potatoes—something that had a benefit to the consumer—I believe we would not have seen the kind of opposition we did. We are going to be seeing crops coming that have more direct benefits to consumers, and I think consumers and activists will have less room and desire to fight the technology.”
Plant molecular biologist Gefu Wang-Pruski has been studying potatoes for approximately 15 years, and is currently leading a program called the Maritime Potato Consortium, which is comprised of four major areas: tuber quality, tuber nutrition and health benefits, developing new disease control systems, and the potato consumer initiative.
Wang-Pruski, who’s also a professor at Nova Scotia Agricultural College, feels consumer concern about GM potatoes is not as strong as it was 10 years ago because most consumers have realized that many other food products are genetically modified.
“I think GM potatoes will really benefit the farmers and the environment, and there’s no evidence showing they are harmful to human health,” she says.
Schreiber agrees. He believes the debate over GMOs is largely over because most processed food items in the United States already have GM ingredients in them. The United States Department of Agriculture recently deregulated alfalfa, he notes, and sugar beets are not far behind.
“The scientific debate has largely moved beyond human health and environmental concerns. Now it has moved into emotional arguments,” he says, noting the biggest concern discussed these days is the movement of pollen and preserving the sanctity of organic seed production. However, Schreiber feels that these arguments will no longer hold back GM potatoes from entering the marketplace.
Potatoes with improved traits are coming, according to Schreiber, regardless of the method used for getting them here.
“If we don’t have traditional GMO products in the potato market, we’ll have technology that brings the same traits in potatoes to the market but do not fit the legal definition of being GMO and therefore will be unregulated,” he says. “Herbicide-resistant and bruise-resistant potatoes, the same traits that are brought to us by GMO, but are brought to us by non-GMO technology, are in the greenhouse right now and will be tested in the field this year.” For example, technological advances in plant breeding can alter the DNA of crop plants without the insertion of new genetic material. Thus, the crop plant is not considered genetically modified by the legal definition.
These improved traits will benefit growers. However, Guenthner feels profit is the key to grower acceptance of GM potatoes. “If GM potatoes offer an opportunity to make a profit, growers will be interested. The profit opportunities could come on the cost side with reduced inputs or on the revenue side with higher yields or higher prices,” he says, adding, GM potatoes could also offer growers the opportunity to reduce production and price risk.
Around the World
The approval of the GM potato variety Amflora by the European Commission in March 2010 represents a significant step forward for the commercial cultivation of GM potatoes in Europe. Amflora, which produces pure amylopectin starch, is the first GM crop approved for commercial application in Europe in 12 years, and is a major milestone on a continent strongly opposed to GM crops.
Conventional potatoes produce a mixture of amylopectin and amylose starch. In many potato starch applications—for example, in the paper, adhesive and food industries—only amylopectin is needed, but separating the two starch components is uneconomical, says Peter Gräve, BASF communications manager based in Germany.
“Amflora produces pure amylopectin starch and thus helps to save resources, energy and costs,” he says. “Moreover, paper manufactured with amylopectin starch has greater tear resistance, and the addition of amylopectin to concrete and adhesives gives them a longer pot life.”
In the case of Amflora, BASF Plant Science and its partners in the starch industry decided to focus on industrial applications. “We produced approximately 1,000 tons of pure amylopectin starch last year with a partner in the Czech Republic. In the 2011 season, BASF Plant Science will be concentrating on propagating Amflora seed stock for cultivation in subsequent years,” says Gräve.
BASF Plant Science is also pursuing approval of two other GM potatoes in the EU. Another pure amylopectin-producing starch potato named Amadea is expected to receive approval for cultivation around 2013. Also, a market launch of a table potato named Fortuna, which is resistant to late blight, is expected to take place around 2014. At this time BASF has no intention of introducing these GM potatoes to the North American market, says Gräve.
Despite this, Guenthner believes the recent EU approval of Amflora is a door opener for future GM potato products around the globe, including North America.
With an expanding global population and increasing food prices, hunger will be an important driving force toward acceptance of GM varieties in poor countries, he says. And in rich countries, economics will be a strong force for acceptance of GM varieties, when growing these varieties becomes more profitable than conventional ones, he adds.
“Many GM products are already grown and accepted around the world and the GM market continues to increase,” Guenthner says.
Wang-Pruski agrees. She says North America is falling behind developing countries when it comes to GM crops, and two major players—government and processing companies—need to move forward with GM potatoes.
“Because there’s limited land and poor soil quality in developing countries, they need more food to feed their people,” she says. “And they’ve realized that if they grow GM crops, it costs less for the farmers and they have a higher yield.”
A Colourful History
The North American potato industry has learned from its past GMO experience and is moving forward with caution, says John Keeling, executive vice-president and CEO of the National Potato Council. Between 1996 and 2001 Monsanto introduced a range of GM potatoes with resistance to Colorado beetle and PVY virus. Farmers started growing these potatoes but the acreage never exceeded two to three per cent of the total potato crop because major companies, such as McDonald’s restaurants, refused to use GM potatoes primarily due to consumer concerns. In 2000, McCain Foods stopped processing GM potatoes and other manufacturers followed. U.S. manufacturers also ran into problems with exports to Japan after snack foods containing GM potatoes had to be recalled.
“Given the experience we’ve had over the previous introduction of a GMO product, and the issues that arose as a result of it not having regulatory approval in all the countries where we export, there was a sense that we didn’t want to do that same thing over again,” says Keeling.
Therefore, the National Potato Council recently created a working group comprised of representatives from all parts of the potato industry to evaluate the issue and develop an appropriate policy. The result is the National Potato Council Biotech Policy.
“I would hope that if GMO potatoes that have both benefits to consumers and growers are developed, and they’re evaluated and proven to be safe by the regulatory agencies, that those products would be able to move forward in the marketplace,” says Keeling.
He urges the industry not to underestimate the formidable hurdles still left to overcome from the standpoint of public acceptance in the reintroduction of GM potatoes to the marketplace.
“The ability to segregate product will ultimately be needed and called for by the marketplace. The need for regulatory approval will be for all major foreign markets where potatoes and potato products are sold—not just in the approval process in the United States,” says Keeling.