Earlier this month, USDA approved nonregulated status for the commercial planting of a genetically modified potato, known as Innate. The approval was granted to Simplot Company, a well-known potato grower based in Idaho. You can read Simplot’s petition to USDA for approval of the Innate potato on the APHIS website. Also available are the Determination of Nonregulated Status and entry in the Federal Register from APHIS.

According to the Associated Press, the potato is aimed to produce less asparagine, a precursor to acrylamide , a potential carcinogen produced during cooking at high temperatures. The genetically modified potato is also aimed to reduce food waste by being resistant to bruising, which reduces shelf life and appeal to consumers. According to Simplot, “the engineering process uses only DNA from potatoes. The potatoes pose no environmental risk, create no harm to other species and grow just like conventional potatoes in extensive field tests.” USDA approval for commercial use would support evidence of those statements.

Over the weekend, reports flared when McDonald’s issued a statement saying that they do not currently serve genetically modified potatoes, nor are there current intentions to source the new product. News networks were quick to share the news, reporting that McDonald’s was rejecting the new product. The usual opponents of biotechnology use in food have also been quick to report the news, touting McDonald’s apparent rejection as a win against genetically modified foods.

From reports I have read this morning, it’s not so much that McDonald’s rejects the GMO potato, but rather there currently is no market access to the genetically modified potato and that current Simplot capacity wouldn’t allow the restaurant chain to source enough of the product.

Here is a further explanation of the statement from McDonald’s via POLITICO:

“McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes…”: To be clear, neither McDonald’s nor any other fast food chain, restaurant or casual potato user can source GMO potatoes since none are available on the market. Monsanto introduced a GMO potato in the mid 1990s, but it pulled the product due to lagging sales just a few years later. J.R. Simplot’s new spud has its approval from USDA, but the company is still awaiting FDA’s sign off before it will start its marketing and sales efforts, the company has said. So currently there are no GMO potatoes to source.

“…nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practices.”: Restaurants test products internally and among customers before making them regular menu items to ensure they will be well received. But because of USDA’s biotechnology rules, the Innate potato has effectively been under lock and key at J.R. Simplot’s facilities and highly regulated locations. USDA issued its approval Nov. 10, not nearly enough time for any company to sign off on its use or to test the product. But even if it was, McDonald’s buys 3.4 billion pounds of potatoes each year. J.R. Simplot meanwhile, currently has just 400 acres in production.

Image via Simplot
Image via Simplot

It is exciting to see the use of biotechnology in food in a manner which consumers can see a direct benefit of the science and technology. Past genetically modified crops have mostly seen a direct benefit on the farm or to the processor, such as reduced pressure from pests, allowance for more targeted and reduced use of herbicides, or increased tolerance to drought.

Transparency and communication from farmers utilizing the new variety of potatoes will be critical for consumer acceptance of the new food choice. It will be important that this information be shared with the context of how the technology will be of benefit to consumers, how it helps farmers to be better stewards of their resources and environment; as well as how the Innate potato will make huge contributions to reducing food waste and ensuring our food supply remains safe through the use of science. Sharing the entire story, and not limiting the conversation to clipped talking points, will be an important piece of that puzzle because opponents are sure to be vocal on the issue. It will be interesting to see how the conversation pans out in the growing seasons ahead.