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Published November 13, 2014, 04:40 PM

Simplot's Innate GMO potato approved

Twenty years after scientists at North Dakota State University were among the first to conduct genetically modified potato research trials in the U.S., J.R. Simplot Co. has received U.S. Department of Agriculture approval for deregulation of a GMO potato. USDA approved Innate, a potato developed from other potato genes so it produces fewer acrylamides when fried. Anti-GMO groups are pressing for USDA to reverse its Nov. 7 decision. Clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected within weeks, according to Simplot.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Twenty years after scientists at North Dakota State University were among the first to conduct genetically modified potato research trials in the U.S., J.R. Simplot Co. has received U.S. Department of Agriculture approval for deregulation of a GMO potato.

USDA approved Innate, a potato developed from other potato genes so it produces fewer acrylamides when fried. Anti-GMO groups are pressing for USDA to reverse its Nov. 7 decision. Clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected within weeks, according to Simplot.

“This approval comes after a decade of scientific development, safety assessments and extensive field tests,” Simplot says.

According to the company, Innate produces up to 75 percent less acrylamide, a substance found in a number of products and associated with cancer.

Haven Baker, chief potato scientist for Simplot, has told the media the process should be more acceptable to consumers because it doesn’t take a gene from another species of plant or animal — but only from cultivated or wild potatoes — to improve the variety. Simplot will promote the development as a “healthier alternative,” but the market advantage is its ability to maintain a fresh look when cut.

Simplot will introduce the technology in Ranger Russets, Russet Burbanks for french fries, and Atlantics, used mostly for chips, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Doug Gurian-Sherman , a plant pathologist and senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety, told the New York Times his organization thinks USDA prematurely approved the technology, and that the development might actually suppress substances in a potato that help it fight pests.

‘Pure’ construct

Gary Secor, an NDSU professor and internationally known potato pathologist, says it is good that Simplot has made the technology market-worthy.

“They’ve changed it from ‘transgenic’ potatoes to ‘cisgenic’ potatoes that have genes only from potatoes. It’s a pure potato construct, if you will.”

In the early 1990s, Secor received some funding from Simplot to do GMO work on potatoes. Secor credits H. Roald Lund, former NDSU Dean of Agriculture and Director of the Experiment Station, for his visionary leadership in promoting the technology. The experimental varieties were planted near Absaraka, N.D., in Cass County, and elsewhere. Some NDSU trials were in Idaho.

NDSU started working on the technology in the mid-1990s and went to the field in 1997. Secor remembers opposition from the Union of Concerned Scientists and other critics, who wanted access to the locations of the test plots, which NDSU refused.

“We didn’t want people to know the locations because of the previous history of people destroying some of this material, even though they were not harmful at all,” Secor says.

Industry pulls back

Monsanto had started some work with genetic modification in its NatureMark potato brand in the ’90s, but McDonald’s said it wouldn’t accept GMO potatoes for french fries. Wendy’s, Burger King, KFC and others followed suit, leading Simplot to pull the plug on some research.

“There was no market for GM potatoes — not only for what we were working on but also what Monsanto and NatureMark were involved with,” Secor says.

Since then, however, Simplot took over some of the NatureMark work with its Plant Sciences group. That’s what’s been deregulated by USDA, Secor says.

Secor thinks American consumers today are less concerned about GMOs than they were in the late 1990s, partly because soybean growers quickly adopted Roundup Ready, a genetic modification that protects beans them from glyphosate. About 90 percent of soybeans and 60 percent of corn are genetically modified.

He says society wasn’t ready for GMO technology yet when NDSU started working with it.

“It was kind of an unknown tool — we were using technology that people didn’t fully understand,” he says. “Now it’s in many crops — corn, soy, cotton, canola and sugar beet so people are more accepting — at least in this country. I’d say both NDSU and Simplot were visionary in the early 1990s to look at GMO potatoes.”

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