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Maine Board Approves 3 Types of Genetically Engineered Potatoes

Courtesy University of Maine Extension Service
Potato fields in bloom in Aroostook County.

With little fanfare, the Maine Board of Pesticides Control unanimously approved on Friday morning the registration of three new types of genetically engineered potatoes that have been developed by a major Idaho agribusiness company.

The move means that the J.R. Simplot Co.’s Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic potatoes could be planted in Maine fields at any time. These potatoes were created by adding genes from a wild potato plant and are designed to be resistant to late blight, the disease that caused the mid-19th century Irish Potato Famine and which remains a problem today. But genetically modified crops have been controversial in the past. Critics of the process say that won’t be any different for the Simplot potatoes, the second generation to be sold under the brand name Innate, although company officials say otherwise.

“Once people understand that it’s [potato-to-potato], they soften,” Sharie Fitzpatrick, a senior biotech regulatory manager at Simplot, said Monday after the board meeting. “It doesn’t hit the same sort of emotional triggers.”

However, Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Family Farm in Bridgewater, who sells organically grown seed potatoes to customers in all 50 states from his Aroostook County farm and who has been a longtime opponent of genetically engineered crops, disagrees.

“These GMO potatoes run the very strong risk of depressing demand for potatoes of all types, both organic and conventional,” he said this week. “There’s a growing body of evidence that consumers do not want genetically engineered food. What I worry about is that there will be a vague recollection that new potatoes will be genetically engineered. That’s going to damage every potato farmer. Not just organic ones but regular ones, too.”

The Innate potatoes have been in development for more than a dozen years, Fitzpatrick said, and have been ruled safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and approved last fall by the United States Department of Agriculture. According to information provided by the Simplot company, the Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic varieties of potato provide benefits to growers, processors and consumers that include reduced bruising, protection from late blight pathogens and enhanced cold storage capability.

“It’s a different type of product,” Fitzpatrick told the pesticide board members before they voted on accepting the potatoes. Maine is the last state in the country to approve the potatoes.

They’re different from conventional potatoes, certainly, and she said also quite different from previously introduced genetically engineered potatoes such as Monsanto’s controversial NewLeaf potato, which was introduced in 1995 but discontinued in 2001 after finding little consumer acceptance. That potato was transgenic, meaning that it was designed to be resistant to the Colorado potato beetle by having Bt toxin producing genes from a bacterium spliced into its own genes.

According to Gerritsen, Monsanto had to register the entire potato with the Maine Board of Pesticide Control because the toxin levels were high enough that it met the pesticide threshold. This helped lead to its failure, he said.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to eat food that is a pesticide,” the organic farmer said.

But the Simplot potatoes are different, according to the company. They are not transgenic, because they only contain genes from potatoes — both from cultivated species and from a wild potato species from South America that provides protection against certain strains of late blight. Although the Simplot potatoes have been genetically engineered, it would have been possible to breed them via the traditional method of cross-pollination, Fitzpatrick said. Still, the company is not trying to hide the fact that it has engineered the potatoes from consumers.

“We’re certainly not trying to downplay it,” she said. “We’re trying to be as upfront as the customer wants us to be.”

Cross-contamination, one problem with genetically engineered varieties of crops such as corn and canola, is unlikely to be an issue with the Simplot potatoes because of the way that potatoes are grown, according to staff at the Maine Board of Pesticides Control.

“Most cultivated potatoes are harvested well before they produce seed. What we call ‘seed potatoes’ are actually pieces of potato tubers that are planted in the ground to produce new plants,” staff wrote in an email to the BDN. “These new plants are clones of parent plants.”

Still, even though there may not be a large risk of cross-contamination to organic or conventional potato fields, Gerritsen wondered why take the chance of introducing these new species when customers are not clamoring for them.

“Consumers have made it clear that they don’t want these GMO potatoes in the mix,” he said.

It is unclear whether Maine farmers will be interested in planting these potatoes. Companies that sell potato products internationally steer clear of genetically engineered plants, according to board members. But because late blight is a disease that is present in Maine potato fields, a product which allows farmers to sharply curtail fungicide application might be desirable, board members said.

This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.