GMO debate stretches from farm to table

14 June 2013. Source:

Among the 20 genetically modified crops now awaiting USDA approval, two stand out — a new potato and an apple.

While most of the biotech crops being evaluated will be fed to livestock or crushed for biofuel feedstock, the potato and apple are intended for human consumption, sparking keen interest among both the farmers who will grow them and the public who will eat them.

Simplot Plant Sciences introduced the biotech potato, called Innate, that is engineered to resist browning and black spot disease and to have fewer sugars and acrylamide, a substance linked to cancer and is produced when a potato is fried.

A Canadian company, Summerland, B.C.-based Okanagan Specialty Fruits, introduced Arctic apples, which stay white after slicing. That makes them good for a variety of uses such as packaged apple slices and to be served in restaurants…

GMO polling

While opponents remain confident about the public’s feelings on GMOs, polls that Simplot and Okanagan commissioned reveal far greater acceptance to GMO staples.

A Simplot study of 1,000 consumers found 60 percent support general GMO technology, 91 percent approve of Simplot’s Innate method and 93 percent are comfortable with traditional breeding. Simplot has emphasized that its technology introduces only genes from other potatoes, rather than different species, to silence expression of specific traits.

In its study, Okanagan, which uses a similar approach to incorporate only other apple genes to silence browning traits in its Arctic apple, found 78 percent of 1,000 consumers were neutral, somewhat likely or extremely likely to buy the product after hearing about it, and only 12 percent were not at all likely to buy it. Nonetheless, industry groups including the U.S. Apple Association and the Northwest Horticultural Council have come out against the Arctic apple, fearing it might turn off some consumers.

As for potatoes, Freese recalls Monsanto’s Colorado potato beetle-resistant GM spud NewLeaf, released in 2000 and discontinued a few years later based on trade partners’ concerns. In general, consumers in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are wary of GM food.

Rupert, Idaho, grower Duane Grant was among the farmers who planted NewLeaf and intends to plant Innate as soon as possible. He believes the reaction to the Oregon wheat issue doesn’t reflect on other GMOs.

“The Innate potato, once they go through the regulatory process, it would be legal, and then distinctly different than Roundup Ready wheat,” Grant said. “If the consumer has a choice of a healthier potato, and healthier as a result of genetic modification that brings no additional risk to the table, the consumer will make an informed decision to buy it.”

By contrast, Freese believes the GM wheat controversy will fuel support for GMO labeling ballot initiatives. Connecticut recently approved the nation’s first labeling law, which would only take effect after at least four other states, including a neighboring state, enact similar requirements, and Washington will vote on a similar proposal in November. An Oregon initiative is in the early stages.

“There have been GMO labeling initiatives in dozens of states. That’s unprecedented,” Freese said.

Other GMO crops…

Simplot marketing and public relations director Doug Cole said his company intends to segregate all of its Innate spuds from the general supply, a strategy Okanagan will also use with its apples, and has already begun the deregulatory process in Canada, Mexico, South Korea and Japan to avert the problems that derailed NewLeaf.

“We expect approval next year by USDA and to be on the market in 2014, with more seed in 2015 and 2016,” Cole said. “We believe all of these traits we’re working on to improve the potato are going to have a dramatic effect on the industry over time. We also believe it may take time to build broad acceptance.”

In a survey for Simplot led by University of Idaho agricultural economist Joe Guenthner, 67 percent of growers expressed willingness to plant GM spuds in the future. Furthermore, Guenthner said the growers believe consumers will be far more likely to embrace so-called “green” GMO technology, which introduces traits only from the same species…