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article imageUSDA approves low carcinogen GM potato for McDonald's supplier

By JohnThomas Didymus     Nov 9, 2014 in Environment
Washington - The US Department of Agriculture has approved for commercial planting a new genetically modified potato being touted as having lower levels of a potentially carcinogenic substance produced when potatoes are fried.
But anti-GM advocates, not impressed by the novel property of the new GM potato, are already campaigning for USDA to reverse its decision.
The new potato, called Innate, comes in three varieties, namely Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic. It was developed by J.R. Simplot, an Idaho-based company, a major supplier to McDonald's Corp. since the 1960s.
According to Reuters, Simplot applied to USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for approval of the new product in 2013 after conducting field trials in eight states, including Florida, Indiana, Idaho, North Dakota, Nebraska and Wisconsin in 2009-2011.
The product is also being reviewed for safety by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The potato's DNA was genetically altered so that it produces less of a suspected carcinogen called acrylamide, found in high concentrations in fried potatoes.
According to Simplot, when Innate potatoes are fried, the levels of acrylamide are 50 to 70 percent lower than in other potato varieties.
Acrylamide has been found to induce cancer in laboratory rats. It is thus suspected that it could also cause cancer in humans. Although the International Agency for Research on Cancer has identified the substance as a "probable human carcinogen," the National Cancer Institute says not enough research has been done to confirm that the levels of the substance normally found in marketed food products can induce cancer in humans.
But the US Food and Drug Administration acknowledged the potential carcinogenicity of the substance when last year it issued guidance on how food processors can lower its levels in foods.
Although food processors are already widely implementing the guidance, Simplot hopes to promote its new product with the claim that it reduces exposure to the potentially carcinogenic substance.
Innate is considered the first of genetically modified crops designed to provide benefits not only to farmers but also to consumers. Previous genetically modified crops were developed, with the interest of farmers in mind, for beneficial traits such as pesticide tolerance.
However, Innate also comes with some major benefits for farmers. It is less susceptible to bruising that occurs in handling during harvesting, shipping and storage. Farmers, processors and shippers value the trait because it reduces financial loss.
Innate’s ability to resist turning brown for hours after it has been cut open also increases its shelf-life.
However, groups opposed to GM crops are questioning the safety of the new potato. They have been lobbying APHIS and restaurant chains, such as McDonald’s, to reject the new GM potato. An advocacy group, Food and Water Watch, has started a petition, already signed by over 100,000 people, asking McDonald's not to use the potatoes.
While some groups would like to see a blanket ban on the development of GM crops, others are calling for tighter restrictions and regulation to safeguard human health and environmental safety.
This is not the first time that a move to introduce a GM potato has met with resistance from anti-GM groups. Monsanto tried unsuccessfully to market potatoes modified to resist Colorado potato beetle in 1995. At the time, Simplot caved in to pressure from its customers, calling on its farmers not to grow the Monsanto potatoes.
Monsanto was forced to withdraw the product in 2001 following the effective campaign against it by activists.
Amflora  genetically modified potato developed by BASF Plant Science for production of starch was fi...
Amflora, genetically modified potato developed by BASF Plant Science for production of starch was finally withdrawn from EU market in 2012
BASF Plant Science
While it is expected that consumers will have reservations about the new product, analysts believe that Simplot has better chances than Monsanto of making consumers accept it. The company has carefully considered engineered properties that would help to promote the product.
First is the claim that French fries produced with the potato have lower levels of the potential carcinogen acrylamide.
Simplot calls the potato Innate because, unlike most previous GM crops, it does not contain genes from other organisms such as bacteria. Instead, its DNA was modified to "silence" the expression of certain genes. One of the silenced genes produces an amino acid called asparagine, which is converted to acrylamide when potato chips are heated to high temperatures.
The company says it also plans to use genes from wild potatoes to confer resistance to potato blight in future GM varieties.
Potato blight caused the Irish Potato Famine.
However, some anti-GM activists have argued that merely altering levels of "naturally" occurring plant enzymes could have unanticipated effects. According to Dough Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at Center for Food Safety, the technology employed in silencing the genes, RNA interference, is relatively new and its process is not yet fully understood.
He dismissed the claim that the new GM product has lower levels of carcinogen, describing it as an attempt to give a "benign face" to a potentially harmful technology. He argued that one of the substances being suppressed in Innate could play a role in the utilization of nitrogen and protecting the plant from pests.
He said the group was considering going to court to reverse the USDA approval.
But the USDA has said its assessment showed that the levels of various nutrients in the potatoes were in the normal range except for the substances targeted in the genetic engineering process.
More about Innate, Innate potato, GM potato, Genetically modified, Mcdonald's
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