A dozen years after a customer revolt forced Monsanto to ditch its genetically engineered potato, an Idaho company aims to resurrect high-tech spuds.
This month, tuber processing giant J.R. Simplot Co. asked the U.S. government to approve five varieties of biotech potatoes. They're engineered not to develop ugly black bruises. McDonald's, which gets many of its fries from Simplot, rejects those. They're also designed to have less of a natural but potentially cancer-causing neurotoxin, acrylamide.
Much has changed in 12 years, according to the Boise-based company.
Unlike transgenic varieties Monsanto commercialized in the 1990s using genes from synthetic bacteria to kill insect pests, Simplot's new "Innate"-brand potatoes use only potato genes.
Haven Baker, Simplot's Yale- and Harvard University-trained vice-president of plant sciences, said his scientists journeyed inside the vegetable's genome to "silence" unwanted attributes, while making sure it remained 100 percent potato.
"You'll never get as much beneficial effect from traditional plant breeding," he said. "And it'll take twice as long."
Those in the industry remember Monsanto's ill-fated foray and say Simplot's major challenge in avoiding a similar fate is ensuring its product is acceptable among growers, processors and, ultimately, people eating it.
"Unless your customers are prepared to embrace this product, it's not going to be successful," said Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission that represents Idaho's $3 billion industry. His group, whose website currently boasts Idaho potatoes aren't genetically engineered, hasn't weighed in on Simplot's endeavor.
But Muir does think the company is making the right moves: Reaching out to the industry, as well as consumers who may eventually buy Innate potatoes as big, un-bruised bakers or golden fries. "They're taking all the appropriate steps."
As the USDA and Food and Drug Administration embark on vetting Simplot's potatoes, the agencies are nearing completion of a similar review of a genetically engineered apple created by a Canadian company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, to resist browning when cut.
The apple industry has opposed Okanagan's "Arctic" apple, on grounds it could create marketing headaches for growers of unmodified apples. Christian Schlect, the Northwest Horticultural Council president, said he hopes the potatoes go to market first.
"We'd just as soon the potato people take the initial foray on marketing this technology, and we'll follow their experience," he said.
In fact, the two products, should they win the government's blessing, could hit customers about the same time, 2015 or 2016.
Baker said with Simplot's new potatoes, growers would earn more money with less wastage from bruising, something that can affect up to 5 percent of their harvest. Additionally, the spuds are designed to produce acrylamide levels so low they skirt California's strict, voter-mandated cancer labels on french fries and potato chips, he said.
McDonald's didn't return a call seeking comment about the tubers. A big Simplot processing rival, ConAgra, says its potatoes are not genetically engineered.
Twelve years on, St. Louis-based Monsanto remains tight lipped about jettisoning its "New Leaf" potatoes — engineered, among other things, to kill Colorado potato beetles. That was a business decision "not influenced by any negative reaction to genetically-modified organisms," spokeswoman Carly Scaduto said.
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