McDonald’s fries it up with genetically modified potatoes

The United States has approved a genetically modified potato for commercial planting that reportedly releases fewer carcinogens than regular potatoes when fried. But not all agricultural experts believe that genetically modified foods can ever be a genuinely healthier alternative. John Dyer reports from Boston.

The genetically modified 'Innate' potatoes reportedly release less carcinogens when fried. McDonald's will use them in its French fries starting next summer. (Photo: Brandon Shigeta, flickr)

The genetically modified ‘Innate’ potatoes reportedly release less carcinogens when fried. McDonald’s will use them in its French fries starting next summer. (Photo: Brandon Shigeta, flickr)

The ‘Innate Potato’ is being touted as a healthier alternative for French fries than regular potatoes and is one reason why the U.S. Agricultural Department gave permission last Friday to J.R. Simplot Company to plant the potatoes. The Boise, Idaho-based company has tweaked the potato to appeal to its largest customer for French fries, the McDonald’s fast food chain. J.R. Simplot provides McDonald’s with 1.3 billion kilograms of potatoes per year.

Fewer carcinogens

“This approval comes after a decade of scientific development, safety assessments and extensive field tests,” said J.R. Simplot said in a statement. The company claims that the potato contains lower-than-average levels of acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen released in fried potatoes. The potato also has been engineered not to bruise during transport. Black spots on potatoes disqualify them from consumption.

Since the tuber’s genes derive from both cultivated and wild potatoes, the company called the new potato “innate”, emphasising its natural qualities. Haven Baker, who oversees J.R. Simplot’s potato research unit, said that there is more “comfort” in “trying to use genes from the potato plant back in the potato plant.”

Monsonato’s potato flop

This was not the first genetically modified potato to be developed. In 2001, Monsanto produced a potato that resisted pests but it wasn’t popular among farmers and consumers, so the agricultural giant pulled it from the market.

The ‘Innate’ is unique because most other genetically modified foods on the market are designed for easy growing or to resist pests – around 90 per cent of corn and soybeans have been spliced with other genes for these reasons. The ‘Innate’ is the first to be modified to relay health benefits to people.

Coming to McDonald’s next summer

The genetically modified potato was grown from 2009 to 2011 in Florida, Indiana, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the potato for human consumption before the end of the year. The Environmental Protection Agency is also expected to approve the potato as safe for the ecosystem in general.

J.R. Simplot hopes to begin shipping its ‘healthier’ Innate potato to McDonald’s by the summer. It also has applications for approval outstanding in Canada, Japan and Mexico. The company is now testing genetically altered versions of the Ranger Russet and Russet Burbank – conventional potatoes commonly used for French fries and other home cooking – and the Atlantic, a potato commonly used for chips.

Mixed reactions

Numerous voices in favour and critical of the potato submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies during its approval process, said J.R. Simplot spokesman Doug Cole.

One such voice opposing the potato is that of Doug Gurian-Sherman, director of sustainable agriculture at the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco, California: “As a general caution, we don’t think enough has been done – and we don’t know enough about this technology – to let this move forward at this time.” He also pointed that the genes removed from Innate Potato to help reduce carcinogens and prevent bruising also help regulate nitrogen in the plant and ward off pests. It’s not year clear if that trade off is good or bad for people, he added.

Apples that no longer brown

Americans are split on genetically modified foods, with some opposed to genetically modifying organisms in any way. But others see it differently. On last Tuesday’s elections that saw Republicans take over both houses of the U.S. Congress, voters in Oregon and Colorado were asked to vote on ballot measures that would require labels on all genetically modified foods sold in the two Western states. The ballots were defeated.

In the meantime, Canada’s Okanagan Specialty Fruits has applied to the Agriculture Department for approval to plant an apple that doesn’t brown after it has been cut. The apple could theoretically appeal to McDonald’s, which lately has been offering apple slices and other healthy snacks on its menu to appease critics who charge that the fast food restaurant’s offerings contribute to obesity and other health problems in the US.

Whether offering consumers an apple that doesn’t brown would actually lead to healthier food choices is speculation at this point. But what is clear is that the controversy surrounding genetically altered foods are not going away anytime soon.


Photo credit: brandon shigeta, flickr/Creative Commons

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