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Consumers keen on GM potatoesConsumers keen on GM potatoes

FDA approves biotech potato, and study finds consumers are willing to spend more for it.

Krissa Welshans 1

March 28, 2015

6 Min Read
Consumers keen on GM potatoes

GENETICALLY modified (GM) food continues to be a controversial topic, with an abundance of seemingly credible sources to support both sides.

GM foods often are portrayed negatively; however, new research from Iowa State University has revealed that the benefit from the crop may change the level of support for the particular product.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration recently completed its evaluation for two varieties of apples genetically engineered by Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. and for six varieties of potatoes genetically engineered by J.R. Simplot Co., concluding that the products are as safe and as nutritious as their conventional counterparts.

Okanagan's Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties of apples, known collectively by the trade name "Arctic Apples," are genetically engineered to resist browning associated with cuts and bruises by reducing levels of enzymes that can cause browning (Feedstuffs, Feb. 23).

Simplot's varieties of Ranger Russet, Russet Burbank and Atlantic potatoes are collectively known by the trade name "Innate" and are genetically engineered to reduce the formation of black spot bruises by lowering the levels of certain enzymes in the potatoes. Additionally, they are engineered to produce less acrylamide by lowering the levels of an amino acid called asparagine and by lowering the levels of reducing sugars. Acrylamide is a chemical that can form in some foods during high-temperature cooking, such as frying, and has been found to cause cancer in animals.

FDA has encouraged Americans to cut back on foods that contain the substance. It accumulates naturally in starchy foods cooked at high temperatures, such as roasted nuts and coffee beans or the crusts of bread.

Newly released research results from an Iowa State University economist revealed that consumers are willing to spend more for GM potato products with reduced levels of acrylamide.

Potato products like French fries and potato chips make up the biggest source of acrylamide consumption in the U.S., according to Wallace Huffman, a Charles F. Curtiss distinguished professor in the Iowa State College of Agriculture & Life Sciences and one of 24 investigators on the project.

He said the research findings underscore the importance of efforts to educate consumers on the use of biotechnology in the production of healthful food.

"This is a complicated issue, so it's important for consumers to get information on how the technology works and its potential benefits," Huffman said.

Potato growers have tried conventional plant breeding techniques to cut down on the formation of acrylamide, but biotechnology and genetic modification have yielded more promising results, he said.

Huffman's research attempted to gauge consumer attitudes toward experimental GM potato products. GM food has sparked controversy among some, but the results of the research showed a willingness among consumers to pay more for GM potato products that reduce the formation of acrylamide than for conventional potatoes.

That provides evidence that consumers are willing to pay more for enhanced food safety, even when it's delivered through biotech methods, Huffman said.

For instance, participants were willing to pay $1.78 more for a 5 lb. bag of potatoes after they received information from a scientific perspective on hazards associated with acrylamide exposure and a potato industry perspective on dramatically reducing acrylamide in potato products using biotechnology. Likewise, the participants were willing to pay an extra $1.33 for a package of frozen French fries after they received materials explaining the scientific implications of human exposure to acrylamide.

The study included approximately 300 people in the Boston, Mass.; Los Angeles, Cal., and Des Moines, Iowa, areas. The subjects participated in an experimental auction market for various potato products both before and after receiving informational materials on acrylamide and the biotechnology used to reduce its formation. Each participant received some combination of information from the perspective of potato growers, food scientists and environmental groups.

"There was a really strong effect from the industry and scientific perspectives," Huffman said. "Another interesting finding was that social and demographic concerns didn't seem to matter regarding willingness to pay for GM products."

While scientific and industry perspectives had a substantial effect on consumers' willingness to buy GM products, the environmental information had a negative impact, Huffman said.

The research was jointly funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food & Agriculture and the University of Wisconsin.



GM crops have long drawn fire from opponents who are worried about their potential contamination of conventional crops and other plants.

Now, a plant gene discovered by University of Guelph scientists might help farmers reduce the risk of GM contamination and quell arguments against the use of transgenic food crops, according to Sherif Sherif, lead author of the research paper describing the findings.

This is believed to be the first ever study to identify a gene involved in altering fruit trees that normally cross-pollinate — needing one plant to fertilize another — into self-pollinators, Sherif said.

The paper was published recently in the journal BMC Biology.

Sherif said researchers might one day insert this gene into GM crops to prevent their pollen from reaching other plants.

"There are a lot of transgenic crops worldwide. There is concern about pollen from them being able to fertilize something in the wild population, thus creating 'super weeds,'" co-author Jay Subramanian, a Guelph professor of plant agriculture, said.

Subramanian studies tree fruits at the Vineland Research & Innovation Centre in Vineland, Ont. Sherif worked with him on studies of plant responses to stresses such as drought or disease.

The researchers found a gene that makes a protein that naturally allows a small handful of plants to self-pollinate and make fruit before the flower opens. Peaches, for example, have closed flowers, unlike their showy-flowered plum and cherry cousins that need pollen from another tree to fertilize and set fruit.

Other co-authors on the paper were Guelph professors Jaideep Mathur from the department of molecular and cellular biology and Gopi Paliyath from the department of plant agriculture, along with Islam El-Sharkawy, a former research associate with Subramanian and colleagues at the National University of Singapore.

Besides aiding crop farmers and food producers, the discovery might be a boon to perfume-makers, Subramanian said.

Used in fragrant perennials such as jasmine, the gene might keep flowers closed and allow growers to collect more of the aromatic compounds prized by perfume-makers. "That's when volatile compounds are peaking," Subramanian said. "When the flower opens, you lose almost 80% of those volatiles."

Most plants develop open flowers to attract pollinators, but it takes energy to make flowers as well as nectar and pollen. Subramanian said plants with closed flowers — called cleistogamous, which is Greek for "closed marriage" — might have developed in environments lacking pollinators or under adverse conditions.

"This is the first time we know of that someone has shown that, using molecular tools, you can induce cleistogamy in plants," he said.

Volume:87 Issue:D1

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