CONJECTURE over consumer acceptance of a new genetically modified (GM) potato product has pro-biotechnology campaigners spitting chips.
The Innate potato developed by Simplot was given formal approval for use by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) last month.
Simplot is a major, long-term potato supplier to McDonald’s for producing the globally dominant fast food chain’s French fries, hash browns and other potato-based products.
Simplot’s website says the new Innate product makes it possible to enhance a potato plant’s desirable traits without introducing foreign genes into the plant. It also says the biotech potatoes are less susceptible to black spot from bruising caused by impact and pressure during harvest and storage than conventional potatoes and have lower levels of asparagine and sugars.
“These potatoes pose no environmental risk, create no harm to other species, and grow just like conventional potatoes in extensive field tests,” Simplot says.
However, with fervent debate raging in the US over GM labelling amid persistent food safety fears, subsequent reporting has indicated the world’s biggest fast-food chain isn’t interested in using the new biotech potato.
In a statement this week to Fairfax Agricultural Media, McDonald's Australia Corporate Communications manager Chris Grant reflected a similar message about his company’s local attitude towards the GM potato.
“McDonald’s Australia does not source GM potatoes for use in our fries or hash browns, nor do we have any plans to do so,” he said.
But Greenpeace co-founder and Golden Rice campaigner Patrick Moore said the McDonald’s rejection was another of the “myriad examples of the success of the anti-science brigade in blackmailing big corporations by threatening their brand with pickets, banners, and boycotts”.
“There was a time when 'improvements' were welcomed by society at large,” he said.
“There is now an anti-intellectual element that doesn’t care a hoot about people. There is no logic or science involved - only ideology and ignorance.
“It is purely opportunistic, preying on fear about food and the 'soccer mums' are the perfect targets.”
US-based biotech supporter and organic industry critic Mischa Popoff said history was repeating itself from a previous rejection of a GM potato developed by Monsanto in 2001, with fast-food company executives to blame.
“Organic activists had failed abysmally in their rather expensive tax-subsidised effort to scare potato farmers away from embracing GM potatoes the way they had scared wheat and flax farmers away from GM wheat and GM flax,” he said of the 2001 scenario.
“So they went after the fast-food industry instead.
“Once the executives at these companies were scared into rejecting the GM potato, there was no point growing it no matter what farmers had to say about its benefits.
“And that’s what’s going to kill the GM potato this time around and thereby retard the development of GM (foods) in general for farmers who need them.”
Mr Popoff criticised the McDonald's executives for making a “sweeping decision that has no effect on them but which will affect potato farmers deeply”.
US National Potato Council (NPC) chief executive officer and vice-president John Keeling told Fairfax Agricultural Media the responsibility for approving the use of GM potatoes in the marketplace lies with the USDA and the US Food and Drug Administration.
He said the decision to utilise new potato products and technologies, reviewed and approved by the appropriate federal agencies, now lies with individual potato producers in the US.
“NPC is supportive of innovation that is proven safe by federal regulators and benefits consumers and growers,” he said.
“Now that a GM potato is approved by the government, we do believe the producer of that product must have a stringent system in place that prevents the inadvertent mixing of GM potatoes with non-GM potatoes.
“We believe our industry must have the ability to meet consumer preferences by marketing non-genetically modified potatoes separate from genetically modified potatoes.”
Idaho Farm Bureau director of Public Relations John Thompson said growers in one of the biggest potato production States in the US understood processing companies don’t want to buy Innate potatoes, because of consumer concerns.
Mr Thompson said the dehydration companies also don’t want to buy Innate potatoes because of concerns about export markets.
He said about 60 per cent of the potatoes planted in Idaho are made into processed products.
“The average in Idaho is about 30 to 40pc of the potatoes grown for fresh use do not make the grade and must be sold for processing, mainly dehydration,” he said.
“So while we support the technology used to develop this potato and we believe it will help farmers increase yields and percentage of marketable potatoes we don’t see how it can become popular with growers at this time because of market restraints.
“Simply put, growers aren’t going to plant them if they don’t have a market for them.”
Mr Thompson said producing potatoes is very expensive and comes with a lot of inherent risk.
“This is an additional risk that we don’t believe growers will accept,” he said.
“However, it is several months from now until planting begins in April so a lot could change in that time.”
Mr Thompson said Idaho produces about one-third of the potatoes grown in the US.
“In rough numbers Idaho growers plant about 300,000 acres of potatoes each year and the average yield is about 350 hundredweight per acre,” he said.
“The value of the crop ranges from about $500 million to about $700 million per year.”
Mr Popoff said executives were the “weak link” when it comes to advancing agricultural technology - not politicians or bureaucrats.
“If these executives ran the computer industry we’d all still be using keystrokes and DOS commands instead of a mouse,” he said.
“If these executives can’t find it in their hearts and pocketbooks to stand up to these anti-humanitarian organic activists, then who, pray tell, will?
“You either support agricultural technology, or you don’t. And the executives at McDonald's have spoken: they don’t.”
The McDonald’s Australia website says the majority of its ingredients are not derived from GM sources “because we source most of our ingredients from Australia, where there are very few GM ingredients produced”.
“However, there are a small number of products which we import from overseas and some of the ingredients in these products may be derived from GM sources,” it says.
“For example, the soybean oil in our tartare sauce may be derived from GM soy beans.
“Of course, the further refining process means the GM material is no longer in the oil, but regulations state that we are still unable to make claims like ‘GM Free’.”
A patchwork of GM laws
In a recent opinion article, Idaho Farm Bureau president Frank Priestley said ballot measures requiring labelling of food made with GM ingredients had recently failed in Colorado and Oregon.
Mr Priestley said California and Washington voters had rejected similar measures in recent years and now nearly half of all US States have considered labelling requirements.
He said only one state, Vermont, had passed a law requiring GM labelling which was facing a legal challenge and isn’t slated to take effect until 2016.
“In Oregon, one of the nation’s most liberal states, the measure lost by a narrow margin,” he said.
“Many pundits thought a labelling bill had a good chance of passing there. In Colorado the measure was defeated by a two-to-one margin. Millions of dollars have been spent both advocating for GMO labelling and defending the status quo.
“So what is the takeaway message from this effort to implement state labelling laws?
“In our opinion, this trend of turning GMO ballot measures down is in part due to the fact that it’s confusing to voters.
“However, for others who take the time to educate themselves about this complex issue, they learn that the advocates are trying to solve a problem that does not exist.”
Mr Priestly said one of the problems with individual States adopting labelling legislation is that the country would “wind up with a patchwork of different laws”.
He said that would put a lot of strain on companies that package, transport and distribute our food, which would add cost for consumers.
“There are several other problems that arise from labelling food that has no discernible difference from other food,” he said.
“However, for consumers who want to avoid food products that contain GM ingredients, following are a few simple rules: shop around the outside aisles in the grocery store and avoid processed foods.
“Livestock feed and ethanol make up the bulk of the end products derived from GM crops in this country. There are very few GM fruits and vegetables available at the present time.
“Get to know local farmers by shopping at farmers markets, ask them questions about their production methods and buy meat and dairy products locally.
“Take an active role in understanding where your food comes from and how it’s produced and you’ll soon realise that more government intervention in our lives is rarely if ever a good thing to advocate."