Any product made with potato will henceforth be subject to added scrutiny before it can receive The Non-GMO Project’s verification stamp.1 The reason? The now widespread prevalence of genetically engineered (GE) potato in the U.S. food supply.
The first-generation GE Innate® potato, developed by J.R. Simplot Co. and branded simply as White Russet™, was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2014 and entered the U.S. marketplace the following year.2 Canada approved it in 2016.3
The Innate® potato has been modified using RNA interference (RNAi) technology to inhibit blackspot bruising and browning by reducing levels of asparagine and certain enzymes in the potato. In addition to white russet potatoes, ranger russet, russet Burbank and Atlantic potatoes have also been modified in this way.
The Non-GMO Project has also announced4 the marketing of a new high-oleic acid GE soy variety, engineered with TALEN gene editing technology. It too has been added to the Project’s high-risk list and is ineligible for The Non-GMO Project Verification label. According to Megan Westgate, executive director of The Non-GMO Project:5
“The supply chain risks we’re now seeing from new GMOs are unprecedented in the decade we’ve been verifying products. Not only are new GE techniques being used, but in some cases biotechnology companies are using unscientific arguments to deceive the public into thinking their products are non-GMO.”
GMO Potatoes Hide Spoilage
J.R. Simplot claims the nonbrowning potatoes benefit consumers, farmers and the environment by cutting down on food spoilage waste and reducing water use and greenhouse gas emissions.6 Trials have shown the Innate® potatoes result in farmers discarding 15 percent fewer potatoes due to bruising and spotting.7
“Another great advantage of Innate® potatoes is that they can be cut, peeled or diced in advance. With Innate’s reduced browning benefits, potatoes can be prepared ahead of time, and stay fresher-looking longer.
In addition to reducing waste, nonbrowning potatoes give foodservice operators and restaurants options for labor savings and off-site peeling or dicing,” Simplot’s website states.
However, as noted by Westgate,” browning is nature’s most visible way of letting you know a product is rotting. GMOs that use RNAi to mask the signs of bruising could lead consumers to unknowingly ingest an unhealthy, toxic product.”
According to Simplot, however, by reducing asparagine, which creates acrylamide, a probable carcinogen, at high temperatures, the Innate® potatoes lower the potential health hazards associated with baked, fried and roasted potatoes.8
Second generation Innate® potatoes are currently under regulatory review. In addition to being nonbrowning, these second generation crops are also engineered to be blight resistant. According to a February 28, 2017, press release:9
“[T]he United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have completed their independent reviews and granted registrations and clearances for three varieties of Simplot’s second generation of INNATE® potatoes.
The three varieties have already been deregulated by the USDA so these new agency registrations and clearances permit these proprietary bioengineered potatoes to be grown and sold in the United States.
The INNATE® Gen. 2 Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic varieties contain significant benefits to growers, processors and consumers with reduced bruising and black spots; reduction of the natural chemical compound asparagine; protection from late blight pathogens; and enhanced cold storage capability.”
Creator of GMO Potatoes Reveals Danger
How can we know Innate® potatoes are a health risk? Because their creator, a genetic engineer named Caius Rommens, former director of researcher and development for the potato program at J.R. Simplot Co. and a former team leader at Monsanto, wrote an entire book about it.
In “Pandora’s Potatoes: The Worst GMOs,”10 released October 7, 2018, Rommens reveals these and similar GE potatoes contain “unstable traits, two of which appear to have been lost already (or are in the process of being lost).”
He also claims the GE potatoes “suffer a significant yield drag and reduction in size profile, conceal bruises and potentially spread diseases, may be grown and stored in ways that maximize disease and pest pressures … [and] are also likely to contain new toxins. If it were up to me, the creator of these potatoes, I would call them Pandora’s Potatoes. They are the worst GMOs ever commercialized.” Rommens also discusses his concerns in an interview with Sustainable Pulse, in which he says:11
“I had my potatoes tested in greenhouses or the field, but I rarely left the laboratory to visit the farms or experimental stations. Indeed, I believed that my theoretical knowledge about potatoes was sufficient to improve potatoes. This was one of my biggest mistakes …
It is amazing that the USDA and FDA approved the GM potatoes by only evaluating our own data. How can the regulatory agencies assume there is no bias? When I was at J.R. Simplot, I truly believed that my GM potatoes were perfect … I was biased and all genetic engineers are biased …
We test our GM crops to confirm their safety, not to question their safety. The regulatory petitions for deregulation are full with meaningless data but hardly include any attempts to reveal the unintended effects.
For instance, the petitions describe the insertion site of the transgene, but they don’t mention the numerous random mutations that occurred during the tissue culture manipulations.
And the petitions provide data on compounds that are safe and don’t matter, such as the regular amino acids and sugars, but hardly give any measurements on the levels of potential toxins or allergens.”
Genetic Engineers Know ‘Just Enough to Be Dangerous’
Rommens says he left J.R. Simplot, where he was in charge of up to 50 scientists, once he realized there were significant problems with his creation. “Looking back at myself and my colleagues, I believe now that we were all brainwashed; that we all brainwashed ourselves,” he says.
“We believed that the essence of life was a dead molecule, DNA, and that we could improve life by changing this molecule in the lab … and that a single genetic change would always have one intentional effect only.”
Indeed, science reveals it simply doesn’t work that way, and that even minor modifications can trigger a cascade of unintended effects. Here’s just one case in point: Researchers decided to search for unintended mutations using research data from a study that used CRISPR-Cas9 to restore sight in blind mice by correcting a genetic mutation.12
They sequenced the entire genome of the CRISPR-edited mice, and in addition to the intended genetic edit they found more than 100 additional deletions and insertions, along with more than 1,500 single-nucleotide mutations.
“We were supposed to understand DNA and to make valuable modifications, but the fact of the matter was that we knew as little about DNA as the average American knows about the Sanskrit version of the Bhagavad Gita,” Rommens tells Sustainable Pulse.13
“We just knew enough to be dangerous, especially when combined with our bias and narrowmindedness. We focused on short-term benefits (in the laboratory) without considering the long-term deficits (in the field).
It was the same kind of thinking that produced DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange, recombinant bovine growth hormone, and so on. I believe that it is important for people to understand how little genetic engineers know, how biased they are and how wrong they can be.”
How GMO Potatoes Stack Up Against Conventional Potatoes
According to Rommens, his GMO potatoes had a number of problems. Their growth was stunted and the plants frequently died. The tubers were also frequently misshapen, and the leaves pale yellow rather than bright green, a condition known as chlorosis, caused by insufficient production of chlorophyll.
Sterility and necrosis, where the plant’s tissues turn brown or black as a result of cell degeneration and death, were other problems noted by Rommens. Necrosis is typically the result of nutrient deficiencies. According to Rommens, one of the reasons his GE potatoes are so inferior has to do with the fact that they’re derived from somatic cells, and somatic cells are only meant to survive for a single season.
“These cells don’t have the genetic integrity to create new plants (like pollen cells and egg cells),” he explains. “So, by transforming somatic cells, we created GM potatoes that contained hundreds of genetic mutations, and these mutations compromised yield. Additionally, the genetic modifications often have ‘unintended’ effects that negatively affect both the agronomic performance and nutritional quality of a crop.”
Rommins claims he was even wrong about the potatoes’ bruise resistance. The potatoes bruise just as easily as normal potatoes, he claims; you just cannot see the bruises because the discoloration has been deactivated.
And this, Rommons says, is actually a significant problem, because the melanin — the compound that causes the dark coloration14 — is actually a protective compound that helps prevent entry by pathogens when the potato is damaged. What’s worse, these now-invisible bruises may actually accumulate toxins.
How Does RNAi Gene Silencing Work?
RNAi is also known as post transcriptional gene silencing. The two scientists who discovered RNAi — Andrew Fire and Craig Mello — received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2006.15 In a 2015 MIT Technology Review article, Antonio Regalado describes the RNAi gene silencing process thus:16
“The cells of plants and animals carry their instructions in the form of DNA. To make a protein, the sequence of genetic letters in each gene gets copied into matching strands of RNA, which then float out of the nucleus to guide the protein-making machinery of the cell. RNA interference, or gene silencing, is a way to destroy specific RNA messages so that a particular protein is not made.”
Aside from potato, another food that employs RNAi gene editing technology to achieve nonbrowning is the Arctic® apple. The Organic Consumers Association wrote about this in 2013, saying:17
“While most existing genetically engineered plants are designed to make new proteins, the Arctic Apple is engineered to produce a form of genetic information called double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). The new dsRNA alters the way genes are expressed.
The result, in the Arctic Apple’s case, is a new double strand of RNA that genetically ‘silences’ the apple’s ability to produce polyphenol oxidase, an enzyme that causes the apple to turn brown when it’s exposed to oxygen.
Harmless? The biotech industry, OSF and some scientists say yes. But others, including professor Jack Heinemann (University of Canterbury, New Zealand), Sarah Agapito-Tenfen (from Santa Catarina University in Brazil) and Judy Carman (Flinders University in South Australia), say that dsRNA manipulation is untested, and therefore inherently risky.
Recent research has shown that dsRNAs can transfer from plants to humans and other animals through food. The biotech industry has always claimed that genetically engineered DNA or RNA is destroyed by human digestion, eliminating the danger of these mutant organisms damaging human genes or human health.
But many biotech scientists say otherwise. They point to evidence that the manipulated RNA finds its way into our digestive systems and bloodstreams, potentially damaging or silencing vital human genes.”
There are also indirect consequences. The chemical compound used in the RNA manipulation process is one that also combats plant pests, and if the fruit’s ability to fend off pests is impaired, growers will end up having to use more pesticides.
How to Avoid GMO Potatoes
Based on Rommens testimony it would seem wise to steer clear of the GE Innate® potato. To avoid them:
- Avoid any potato sold under the Simplot Innate® brand
- Avoid White Russet™ potatoes, as well as any other white russet potato, as contamination between GE and non-GE varieties could be a problem
- Check the potatoes for spots. GE varieties will not have spots
- Check the potato for browning once peeled or cut in half. Non-GE varieties typically start browning within two minutes (see video above)
- Avoid processed foods made with potato ingredients, such as frozen dinners, powdered potatoes, soup with potatoes and potato chips, as processed foods typically use GE ingredients. Also avoid ordering russet potatoes when eating out, unless they’re guaranteed non-GMO or organic
One of the easiest ways to avoid GE potatoes is to buy organic varieties. This way, you’ll also avoid synthetic pesticides. If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate organically grown produce such as potatoes:
- Demeter-USA.org provides a directory of certified Biodynamic farms and brands. This directory can also be found on BiodynamicFood.org.
- Weston A. Price Foundation has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods.
- The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO “organic” production from authentic organic practices.