The Innate Strategy
Whether you call it biotechnology or GMO there’s no arguing the fact that Simplot has made a major investment in the future of variety development with their first generation of Innate potatoes of Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic varieties.
Through gene silencing, or RNA interference, Simplot’s new Innate varieties have three significant traits to benefit the potato industry. The first is reduced black spot from bruising, the second is reduced asparagine, which reduces the potential for formation of acrylamide and the third is reduced sugars, thereby providing processors with a consistent golden french fry.
The public comment period for Simplot’s Innate potatoes ended on July 2, 2013, but comments, both pro and con about Simplot’s investment in the field of genetically engineered potatoes, continue to roil the potato industry. Many growers have not forgotten the consumer and international backlash from Monsanto’s NewLeaf GMO potato introduced in 1995.
Though Monsanto used a foreign gene in its NewLeaf variety and Simplot is using potato genes in their Innate varieties, GMO and biotechnology critics see little difference between the methodologies.
In an attempt to address some of the concerns I have heard from growers and researchers during the past six months, I asked Haven Baker, vice president of plant sciences at Simplot, to respond to this series of questions.
Spudman: How are you going to achieve market success if consumers are opposed to GMOs?
Baker: There is a difference between consumer acceptance (what people say they will buy) and market acceptance (what people actually buy) when it comes to GMO/biotechnology-based products. If you look at the numbers, market acceptance for biotech has been high: Biotech crops have been around for about 20 years with 400 million acres grown by 17 million farmers in 28 countries worldwide creating two trillion meals. However, consumer acceptance, measured by consumer surveys and media coverage, would indicate acceptance is still mixed to low. I believe this is due to several factors, including a lack of consumer education and understanding of how food is produced, and misinformation by some who are opposed to technology for various reasons.
The USDA and FDA review the science behind GMO/biotech crops to determine that there are no significant differences between a specific crop and its biotech counterpart and that it is safe for consumption for humans and animals. Because there is no difference in the composition, nutritional value or safety of the food, there is no requirement to label in the U.S. In most other countries, there is a requirement to label, but this has not impacted the growth of biotech crop exports.
Biotech crops such as corn, soybeans, sugar beets and canola have become pervasive in the marketplace – both in the U.S. and abroad. In the produce aisle, there is a good chance the sweet corn and papaya will be biotech. Will potatoes be different? We don’t believe so. Innate potatoes have the additional benefit of only containing potato genes similar to traditional plant breeding. Our research indicates consumers will be more likely to accept biotech potatoes, especially when they understand the benefits in terms of health and sustainability.
Spudman: Growers often mention Monsanto’s GMO variety, New Leaf, and the fact that even now in 2014, 19 years following its introduction in 1995, they are continuing to pay the price of continuous testing. How do you address their fears and what can you do to alter foreign market perceptions?
Baker: A lot has changed from 2001 when biotech potatoes were last on the market. Over the past 12 years, major export markets have established acceptable levels for biotech presence in conventional crops and have established approval processes for crops previously approved in the U.S. For this reason, Innate will be approved in the U.S. first with concurrent approvals sought in Canada, Japan, and Mexico. Problems can arise in countries where certain biotech varieties show up unlabeled and unapproved.
Also, we won’t be selling seeds broadly like what was done in the past. Instead, Innate will initially be licensed to growers and packers/processors that have experience in potato segregation and have a process for their off-grade and can ensure control of the potatoes until they reach the customer.
Spudman: If you can’t get access to foreign markets how do you propose to segregate/isolate Innate from other non-biotech varieties? What do you do to eventually open up foreign markets that are closed?
Baker: Simplot is already seeking approval in common potato export markets. After approval, it will be several years before there is significant Innate acreage in the U.S. In terms of segregation, Innate will only be licensed to growers or processors that meet our stewardship requirements. These requirements are designed to ensure segregation of Innate potatoes until broad acceptance is achieved.
With regards to opening up foreign markets, foreign government approval is a requirement, but ultimately, customers will decide when to buy biotech potatoes. There are indications that some foreign customers will be interested in improved potatoes, but many will likely take a wait-and-see approach.
Spudman: Consumers don’t view acrylamide as an issue so why would you promote that as a trait?
Baker: Recently, the USDA and a number of the potato processing companies funded an effort to use traditional breeding to find lower acrylamide varieties. Innate Potatoes are very much in alignment with this effort.
Consumer studies indicate acrylamide has little awareness. However, the FDA recently released guidelines for acrylamide levels. The FDA actually identified biotechnology in the guidelines as one of the promising methods of lowering levels of acrylamide. In fact, by silencing the genes related to the expression of the amino acid asparagine, Innate has been shown to lower acrylamide by 50 to 70 percent when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures, without the need for a processor to make any changes to their production practices.
Spudman: Is biotechnology really necessary if Innate’s benefits can be achieved through traditional plant breeding? Are you taking shortcuts in variety development that are unnecessary?
Baker: Potato breeding is a tough job. The next time you meet with a breeder, please be sympathetic as it is very difficult to get new traits into new varieties and get them on the market. Because conventional potato varieties are non-inbred and do not breed true, traditional methods lead to a lengthy and complex process, taking 12 to 15 years and 1,000,000 progeny to find a successful commercial variety. Even then, traditional breeding techniques result in random genomic rearrangements and trait segregation, and do not generally allow for the simultaneous addition of multiple desired traits.
Because Innate technology effectively accelerates the process of introducing new traits; it enables added changes in traditional potato varieties much faster than is currently possible, while maintaining the desired characteristics of the original parent plant. For example, it’s possible to introduce the lower asparagine, lower black spot bruise and non-browning traits in the same variety at the same time.
Simplot researchers have been methodically working on Innate varieties since 2001 and have been working on seed bulk-up since 2009. Primarily, we have been improving the Ranger Russet, Russet Burbank, Atlantic and Snowden varieties, because they represent common varieties in the process, fresh and chip industries respectively. We intend to improve other varieties in the future.
Spudman: Will the Innate varieties be Simplot proprietary varieties or will they be made available to other processors?
Baker: Innate varieties – either in the form of seed or raw product – will be made available to licensed partners throughout the industry including packers and processors. Simplot has already been growing Innate field trials with a number of growers and with other potato companies, at their request, over the last few years for testing purposes.
Spudman: What has the response been from existing Simplot customers? What will you do to address activists opposed to all forms of GMO?
Baker: Simplot does not speak on behalf of its specific customers. We’re encouraged by the interest of potential customers in multiple industry sectors. In terms of reaction from activists, our position remains unchanged – we believe in a transparent approach that focuses on the benefits of the science and the positive impact to growers and the industry. Our USDA petition has received support from 13 potato research institutions, seven potato commissions and 18 respected potato growers, indicating broad support.