It’s Back to School for Potatoes


As our kids return to school this fall, we hope that their schools will bring out the best in them. We want their teachers to accentuate the positive and downplay the negative.

That’s exactly what biotechnology will do for genetically modified potatoes: It amplifies the desirable genes and minimizes the undesirable ones that inhibit the plant’s ability to feed people.

Consumers are going to love what biotechnology can do for potatoes. Not only will GM potatoes look and taste better than the conventional varieties we already love–they’re going to be healthier as well.

GM potatoes are still a couple of years away from full commercialization, but as a potato producer, I’m looking forward to seeing and experiencing the results in my own fields.

I’ve seen promising results from field trials of GM potatoes that don’t bruise as easily as today’s potatoes, nor do they turn brown as quickly after cutting. They generate significantly less acrylamide, a chemical compound that can form when many starchy foods are heated at high temperatures. It’s already harmless in small doses, but GM potatoes render it even more irrelevant.

They’re likely even going to be less expensive, because less bruising and browning means fewer potatoes will go to waste as they move from farm to fork.

Those are first-generation benefits–the advantages we’ll enjoy immediately. Second-generation benefits include potatoes packed with more vitamins and nutrients.

Everything about potatoes will be better. Forgive me for sounding like Bubba from “Forrest Gump” when he talks about shrimp, but GM potatoes will improve all kinds of food we already love: baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, potato salad, French-fried potatoes, and so on.

Best of all, these upgrades will be the result of biotechnology’s ability to make the most of the potato’s own genetic diversity. Potatoes are one of the hardiest crops on the planet. Native to the mountains of Peru, potato plants have adapted to frigid cold, blistering heat, and deadly plant disease–just about every sort of stress nature can hurl at them.

In other words, biotechnology works with great material that’s already a part of the potato’s genetic makeup.

Through a process called “intragenics”, researchers can isolate genetic elements from a plant, rearrange or link them in beneficial ways, and stick them back into the plant without using anything besides its own DNA. It’s like traditional plant breeding that has been around for hundreds of years – just more precise.

This is a cutting-edge technique, but a relatively minor change compared to what we already do with other fully-accepted GM crops such as corn and soybeans, in which genes from different species may be transferred into the plants to help them fight insect pests.

GM potatoes are amazing in another way as well. One criticism of some crops improved with biotechnology is that if their pollen floats into neighboring fields, they can impact the harvests of non-GM farmers. While the safety of the food is not an issue at all, nevertheless this is the source of anxiety for some.

Yet organic potato producers have nothing to fear from pollen drift because commercial potatoes reproduce from cuttings of tuber, not seeds. Although potato plants will bloom with flowers, they reproduce on farms in a completely different way. So pollen drift between organic, conventional or biotech potatoes is of no concern.

The biotech revolution has improved our stewardship of the environment. Now that we’ve had more than 15 years of experience with GM crops, we see the advantages plainly. Productivity has gone through the roof, allowing us to grow more food on less land. We’ve cut back on tillage, conserving soil. We’ve also reduced our reliance on herbicides. Because of all this, GM crops are an essential component of sustainable agriculture–and the advent of biotech potatoes marks another step in the right direction.

This extraordinary crop, with its benefits for the environment, consumers, and farmers is now in the midst of regulatory approval. So, here’s my two cents: Welcome to the biotech revolution, potatoes. It’s about time.

Duane Grant grows potatoes, malt barley, sugar beets, corn, dry beans, alfalfa, wheat and onion seed on a family farm in Idaho.  Mr. Grant is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network.

Duane Grant

Duane Grant

Duane Grant grows potatoes, malt barley, sugar beets, corn, dry beans, alfalfa, wheat and onion seed on a family farm in Idaho. Mr. Grant is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network.

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