U.S. regulators have approved a potato genetically engineered to resist bruising and that could lead to a lower risk of cancer, marking an interesting twist in the ongoing debate over so-called Frankenfoods.
The Innate Potato, developed by Idaho-based Simplot, contains the genes of other potatoes that act to mute certain enzymes.
Aside from making the spuds more hardy, the DNA splicing also lowers the amount of acrylamide by 50 to 75%, according to Simplot, which is one of McDonald’s biggest suppliers.
The Guardian explains that the new potato:
“…reduces the expression of a gene that produces asparagine, an amino acid. The naturally occurring chemical reacts with some sugars to oxidize into acrylamide at around 120F (49C), especially during high-temperature frying. Potato chips and french fries in particular have been found to contain a high level of the chemical.”
As the newspaper notes, the promotion of a genetically modified crop’s potential health effects by a company is a new development.
In Europe, consumers have long resisted GMOs thanks to opposition from the likes of Greenpeace and Prince Charles. North American consumers have been more accepting in general, although a movement to label such foods as such has been gaining steam. The debate has been particularly pointed in Oregon and Colorado, where recent votes to introduce such labeling were narrowly defeated.
GMO producers have a potentially growing image problem on their hands in their largest market. That’s where crops that provide benefits to consumers—and not just farmers and the companies themselves – come in.
Although Simplot’s Innate Potatoes, which could ultimately used in McDonald’s French fries, haven’t been proven to reduce the risk of cancer, the logic behind the claim is at least sound. And therein is the marketing hook, because who doesn’t want less cancerous potatoes?
Promoting a GMO’s positive consumer effects isn’t new, at least not in the corporate world. It’s been going on for more than a decade with Golden Rice, a strain of the crop that was engineered by Swiss scientists to contain more vitamin A. Opposition to it, because of its newness, was fierce with critics ranging from Greenpeace to author Michael Pollan attacking every angle of it, from its potential impact on biodiversity to some of the patents involved in its creation to its actual vitamin A content.
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The critics themselves have been roundly criticized for their opposition, given that an estimated 600,000 to 2 million people—mostly children—die each year from vitamin A deficiency. As Bruce Chassy, the associate director of the biotechnology centre at the University of Illinois, told me a few years ago, “What is it about one to two million people dying from vitamin A deficiency that doesn’t make you want to try out just about anything?”
Golden Rice still isn’t in use anywhere for all those various reasons above, but it did pave the way image-wise for how GMOs need to sold to the public. A potentially less cancerous potato is obviously in a different league than a crop that can prevent death, but the thrust is the same in both cases. If consumers are going to accept GMOs, they’re going to have to get a better idea of what’s in it for them.