Scientists at J.R. Simplot Company developed a potato genetically engineered to resist the late blight that destroyed crops of potatoes in Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s leading to the Irish Potato Famine.
In 1840s Ireland, many of the country’s poor relied on the potato in their diet. In 1845, however, a late blight caused by the water mold Phytophthora infestans is believed to have been accidentally imported from North America. The disease then began to appear in the country’s potato crop. The first year only saw partial crop failure, but the blight from 1846 to 1849 resulted in an almost total destruction of the nation’s potato crop.
The new blight-resistant potato, however, developed in 2015, will provide some relief for potato farmers worldwide whose crops still suffer from attacks of late blight.
“For historical reasons and current agriculture reasons, this is an important milestone,” said Haven Baker, vice president of plant sciences at Simplot.
“The Irish potato famine did change a lot of Western history. Even today – 160 years later – late blight is a $5 billion problem for the global potato industry.”
Not only will this new potato be resistant to blight but its new characteristics allow for it to be stored at colder temperatures for longer periods of time, reducing food waste.
Sold under Simplot’s Innate brand, the genetically-engineered (GE) potato cleared its first federal regulatory hurdle, earning its first approval from the US Department of Agriculture.
This is the second Innate potato to pass this hurdle. A Simplot-developed GE potato that is resistant to bruising and browning was approved in March. The DNA of this potato was altered to lower its sugar content and reduce levels of the natural chemical asparagine, which lowers the production of acrylamide in the frying process by as much as 90 percent.
The development has amassed wide praise among scientists and consumer groups alike.
Dr. Richard Veilleux, interim head at the Department of Horticulture, Virginia Tech University commended the benefits of blight resistance stating: “Growing potatoes with improved late blight resistance should result in considerable reduction in fungicide use by potato farmers, thus lowering the possibility of pesticide residue in the edible crop.”
Dr. David Douches, Professor and Director of Potato Breeding and Genetics Program at Michigan State University said, “Late blight is caused by a pathogen which can rot the tubers. Before the disease moves in during the summer, farmers are required to protect their crop so that they are in a position to manage the disease when it hits.
“That requires a weekly spray schedule to protect the crop, which accelerates if and when the disease hits. Having some resistance in the potatoes allows the farmer to cut back on their fungicide needs and still have some crop protection.”
The genetically engineered potatoes are coming under fire from food advocacy groups who lobby against genetic modification, however.
GM Watch, an independent organization that gathers news and comment on genetically modified foods, called the development “superfluous,” saying “this GM potato appears to be yet another GMO white elephant. Not only does nobody want to buy it (e.g. McDonald’s and Frito-Lay), but nobody needs it either.”
The groups are also claiming that the potatoes are transgenic (they use “foreign genes” from other plants or animals), something that is vehemently denied by Simplot.
“It’s potato genes in the potato,” said Baker. “There are clear benefits for everybody, and it’s just a potato.”
The first version of the Innate GE potato, marketed as White Russets, has gradually been tested on the market in ten US states throughout the summer. The company is said to have sold 400 acres worth with plans to increase this to 2,000 acres of potatoes next year.
Simplot believe they will receive full approval from the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Environmental Protection Agency this year for the second generation Innate potato, with plans to begin commercial planting by summer 2017 and have the product in stores by fall of that year.
They are also working on a third generation GE potato that will be resistant to a type of virus that can make potatoes unmarketable and aim to eventually create a potato that will require less water and can better survive heat and drought.
Would you buy and eat the innate genetically-engineered potato? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
*Originally published in 2015