Winning the Battle of the Bruised Potato

Posted in: Farming     

“It’s a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes,” said Douglas Adams, the late author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

And he had a point. But researchers at agricultural giant J.R. Simplot believe they’ve solved a major problem afflicting potatoes: their tendency to bruise if not handled gently.

Last November, Simplot’s “Innate” potato was given USDA approval, instantly gaining media coverage. The new spud contain genes from wild and cultivated potatoes hence the trademarked name. According to Simplot, Innate variety experience about “40 percent less bruising than conventional potatoes given the same impact and pressure during harvest and storage.” They will have no black spots and they won’t turn brown when peeled or cut.

If potatoes bruise half as often, that will reduce a lot of waste. With the Innate variety and reduced bruising, 80% of the crop can be sold as high-grade potatoes, reducing waste by 135 million pounds annually. In addition, consumers throw away an estimated 3 billion pounds of potatoes each year because of bruising, sprouting or greening. The Innate variety should reduce this waste too.

A second major benefit of the Innate potato is that it contains less asparagine, a chemical that’s found in many vegetables and that becomes acrylamide — a known carcinogen — at high cooking temperatures. Simplot says in its first-generation Innate, reduced levels of asparagine translate into as much as a 70 percent reduction in acrylamide. The next-gen spud takes that figure to 90 percent. 

Simplot spokesperson Doug Cole told AgAdvance in early February that the company is now waiting on approval from the FDA, which he expects to arrive “any day now.” 

The next task will be to find buyers for its seed among growers who serve the fresh market. The USDA has so far approved three Innate varieties: Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and the Atlantic. “We think we’ll have strong interest as these will be the healthier, more sustainable option,” Cole says. The company has about 400 acres of the Innate planted. 

Anti-GMO activists have already spoken out against the product’s launch. In a statement, the Center for Food Safety said that the form of gene silencing used to create the potato, RNA interference (RNAi), is little understood. 

The USDA approvals “are riddled with holes and are extremely worrisome,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, Ph.D., Center for Food Safety Director of sustainable agriculture and senior scientist. (see last issue’s AgAdvance article on RNAi at
/issues/mar-2014/running-interference.aspx)

But Kevin MacIsaac, head of the United Potato Growers of Canada, says that he’s feeling optimistic about the Innate and its chances of finding support, as long as it’s deemed safe by authorities. 

He remembers when Monsanto’s GM potato, NewLeaf, was introduced in 1995 and discontinued in 2001. It had been modified to contain a toxin that would repel the Colorado potato beetle. Only a few farmers picked up the seed because of its premium pricing and food companies were taking a cautious approach. 

The NewLeaf potato “was more about the economic benefits of using less pesticide,” says MacIsaac, whereas the modifications in the Innate are about improvements to the potato, which, he says “makes the potato seem a little more likable...or acceptable.” 

He also thinks Simplot has been smarter about the way it’s easing the potato into the market, compared to what he recalls as an “out-of-nowhere” arrival of the NewLeaf, “Simplot’s been rolling out slower, taking their time and gathering feedback.” 

In general, he adds, “We’re all following this closely and looking for a positive outcome. But there’s still more we need to know about this potato. Like, does it grow well? Does it yield well? Does it taste good to the consumer?”

He may soon get his answers. Cole says Simplot has had its petition in front of Health Canada for two years and is hoping for approval in 2015. The Innate is currently being tested in New Brunswick. 

About the Author
Lila MacLellan

Lila MacLellan is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City. She is originally from Toronto and has lived in Vancouver, Sapporo, and Montreal.


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