You’re probably aware of the best-known GMO crops such as corn, soy, and canola. Did you know that there are also GMO potatoes? They have been around since 2015, but it is just now that they are becoming widely available in the American food supply. To address this new GMO concern, the Non-GMO Project has officially moved the potato from the Monitored-Risk list to the High-Risk list in the Non-GMO Project Standard.
The Non-GMO Project evaluates key criteria to determine when a crop needs to be upgraded to the High-Risk list. These criteria include the number of acres planted, the degree of presence in the supply chain, and the potential for use in human food or animal feed. When these factors reach a predetermined threshold, the crop is recommended for addition to the High-Risk list.
The genetically modified potato has now met this threshold. This means that products made with potato will be subject to extra scrutiny before they can become Non-GMO Project Verified.
The Genetically Modified Potato
Potatoes have a gene that causes them to bruise when damaged. In these new GMO potatoes, that gene has been silenced so it cannot be expressed. The potato still gets damaged, but the symptoms are hidden from view—and from the consumer. This is not the only modification made to these potatoes; they have also been altered to produce lower levels of acrylamide when cooked.
The GMO potato has been engineered through a method of gene silencing called RNA interference (RNAi). This genetic engineering technique results in a potato that hides the symptoms of blackspot bruising rather than preventing it. Currently, GMO potatoes are being marketed under the Simplot Innate brand, most commonly found under the trademark White Russet. The Non-GMO Project’s full-time research team has kept a watchful eye on these potatoes since their debut and continues to monitor their presence in the North American food supply.
To understand RNA interference, it is important to know that messenger RNA (mRNA) carries genetic instructions from the cell nucleus out to other parts of a cell. RNAi begins when a different type of RNA (dsRNA) is placed inside a cell. The dsRNA gets cut up by enzymes, paired up with proteins, and then ends up binding to a specific target site where it fits on the mRNA. This can prevent the mRNA from delivering all of its instructions, effectively “silencing” the desired gene. In the potato’s case, the gene being silenced is the one that causes browning.
What is the High-Risk List?
The potato has been added to the High-Risk list of the Non-GMO Project Standard because GMO versions of the potato are now “widely commercially available” in the United States.
The Non-GMO Project Standard is the controlling document that defines the requirements for a product to be Non-GMO Project Verified. It lays out all the rules for testing, traceability, segregation, and inspections. The Standard also classifies crops and other inputs by risk level based on how likely they are to come from biotechnology. The High-Risk list includes inputs for which genetically modified versions are widely commercially available. The Monitored-Risk list includes inputs for which genetically modified versions exist, but are not yet widely commercially available. Crops on the High-Risk list are subject to stricter evaluation under the Standard.
You may have heard of Dr. Caius Rommens, the scientist who developed the Simplot potatoes. Dr. Rommens recently released a book called Pandora’s Potatoes, in which he heavily criticizes the very same GMO potatoes he created and comes clean about the mistakes he made while making them. His book is full of difficult truths about the pro-GMO bias that led him to overlook unfavorable results, the financial pressures that can overpower good science, and the unfortunate realities of off-target effects in gene editing. In a recently published article, he writes:
It was as hard for me to consider that my GMO varieties might be corrupted as it is for parents to doubt the perfection of their children. Our assumption was that GMOs are safe. But my pro-biotech filter eventually wore thin and finally shattered entirely.
I identified some minor mistakes and had my first doubts about the products of my work. I wanted to re-evaluate our program and slow it down, but it was too little too late. Business leaders were involved now. They saw dollar signs. They wanted to expand and speed-up the program, not slow it down.
Once these novel life forms are released into the world, there is no calling them back into the lab. They aren’t being regulated and there is no way to know the long-term impacts of these new technologies. The Non-GMO Project’s dedicated research team continues to follow the development of new GMOs like the RNAi potato so you can have the right to know what’s in your food.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What types of potatoes are being genetically modified?
On the market since 2015, the GMO potato developed by J.R. Simplot has been engineered through a method of gene silencing called RNA interference (RNAi). Currently, the GMO potato is being marketed under the Simplot Innate brand, found under the trademark White Russet.
What has been modified in the GMO potato?
The expression of genes that cause discoloration from blackspot bruising has been silenced, or turned off in these potatoes. It’s important to note that genetic engineers have not actually found a way to prevent bruising, but rather to hide the symptoms of it. These potatoes have also been altered to produce less acrylamide when cooked.
How is this genetic modification accomplished?
GMO potatoes have been subjected to a new genetic engineering technique called RNA interference (RNAi), which artificially interrupts the instructions for life using genetic engineering to change an organism’s genetic expression.
How do I tell if a potato is genetically modified?
There is no definitive way to tell if a potato has been genetically modified by looking at it. GMO White Russet potatoes can be identified by their branded bags with language such as “reduced bruising” and “fewer black spots,” but they may also be found in prepared and processed foods.
What is the High-Risk list and how does the Non-GMO Project determine when a crop gets moved to it?
The Non-GMO Project Standard categorizes inputs by how likely they are to be genetically modified. The High-Risk list contains inputs that are the most likely to be products of biotechnology and are therefore subject to extra scrutiny during the verification process. The Project uses an established set of criteria to determine when a crop or product becomes “widely commercially available.” These criteria are related to the likelihood of GMO contamination in the conventional and non-GMO supply chain such as the number of acres planted, the presence in the supply chain, and its potential for use in human food or as animal feed.
Why has the Non-GMO Project added the potato to the High-Risk list?
The potato has been added to the high-risk list because GMO versions of the potato have met the Non-GMO Project’s established criteria for being “widely commercially available” in the United States. The High-Risk list can be found in Appendix B of the Non-GMO Project Standard.
What types of products could contain GMO potatoes?
In addition to genetically modified potatoes sold whole, GMO potatoes may potentially be found in frozen potato products, chips (although russet potatoes are not commonly used), prepared foods that include potato, and foods that contain potato derivatives, such as potato starch, potato flour, dextrose, and potato alcohols.
How long do brands have to come into compliance with the updated Standard?
Brands with Non-GMO Project Verified products were informed of the addition of potato to the High-Risk list on October 31, 2018. The Non-GMO Project Terms of Reference demands that products come into compliance with changes to the Standard by their next annual renewal or within six months, whichever is longer.
How do I make sure I’m not eating GMO potatoes now?
The Non-GMO Project is committed to ensuring that you have the information you need to make informed choices about GMOs. If you prefer to keep GMOs out of your shopping basket, avoid Simplot Innate White Russet potatoes.
Has the Non-GMO Project moved a crop to the high-risk list before?
This is only the second time the Non-GMO Project has moved a crop from the Monitored-Risk list to the High-Risk list. The first time was in 2011 when alfalfa, which is predominantly used as animal feed, was added.
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