The potato is one the most important vegetables that we grow due to its source of vitamins and fibers. In November of 2014 the UDSA approved commercial planting of genetically engineered potatoes. The genetically modified potatoes will have reduced bruising and blemishes that lower the value of the potatoes. What makes genetically modified potatoes unique from other genetically modified crops is that the potatoes will have no forging DNA added to them but, instead employ RNAi (1). One of the reasons for altering the potato is to make them more visually appealing to the consumer. After the potato is plucked it can turn brown in minutes after being exposed to oxygen and can bruise easier. The reason farmers are pushing for a genetically modified potato is because their crop will have fewer blemishes and a larger percent of their crop can be transported without the risk of dying on the way to the market to be sold at a higher price. Not only does this help the farmer but, it also helps the supplier ‘We’ve done the math. Before potatoes ever reach the consumer, there is 400 million pounds of potato waste that we could save if Innate potatoes were adopted in the fresh market,’ say Haven Baker (1), general manager and vice president of plant science at Simplot. This saves the unpleasant potatoes form being discarded. Baker’s goal is not just to supply the fast food industry with potatoes but, to have a fresh cut potato available for the consumer. Although good things have been said about GM potatoes concerns have been brought up by some including senior scientist at the Washington, DC-based Center for Food safety Doug Gurian-Sherman. He believes that altering the asparagine enzyme may alter the potatoes defense against pathogens (1). He believes that more research must be done to understand the effects of altering the enzyme so there is no repeat of the Irish potato famine (1). There are many surrounding questions about genetically modified potatoes for example; how is the RNAi introduced into the potato, what is the strategy, can the GM potatoes affect other crops, are farmers and consumers willing to plant this new potato, are there ethical objections, and would the consumer eat the these potatoes. The argument wages between the public about these GM crops and I plan to show both sides of debate.
Before understanding what is happening to the potatoes we must first understand how RNAi works. RNA stands for ribonucleic acid. RNA are sing strands of nucleotides that are produced from DNA. RNA interference (RNAi) is a mechanism of gene splicing. This process also blocks forging DNA from entering the system. RNAi technology is precise, efficient, and stable (2). RNAi used with crops can actually improve the crop in many ways, for example nutritional improvements, reduced content of food allergens, and enhanced defense against biotic and abiotic stresses (2). Although RNAi can improve crops there are still biosafety risks that can occur. The RNAi transfer their genetic information into the host cells as double stranded RNA (dsRNA) which is chopped up into smaller RNA fragments called small interfering RNAs (2). Targeting essential gene of a potato pest can turn dsRNA into a precise and potent insecticide (2). One of the species that causes destruction of potatoes are the Colorado potato beetles. Many farmers try to control this by spraying pesticides, but these beetles have become immune to them. With the introduction of RNAi these potatoes can be protected by these beetles because modified potatoes are able to enable their chloroplast to accumulate dsRNAs and target against the beetle genes (3). One risk people fear is cross contamination between GM potatoes and non GM crops. With the potato cross contamination is minimal because they reproduce through the production of tubers. Tubers sprout like a normal stem including nodes and internodes (4). The tuber is produced from the farthest point from the bud. The tubers protect the crop from the winter weather. This process not only helps the plant, but also reduces the chances of cross pollination. Although the tubers help with cross pollination they do not completely prevent cross pollination (4). With the risk of cross pollination a possible risk we must ask the farmers if they are willing to take that risk and still produce GM potatoes.
One question that has an effect on all of us, is will farmers actually plant genetically modified potatoes? There are various opinions and debates that still rage on today if they are to the farmers benefit. Grace Maher is a member of the Irish Organic Farmers Growers Association is a strong proponent of GM potatoes. She believes that the consumer is not interested in genetically modified potatoes because they are a low level crop. She also states that the research done in a lab is ‘useless’ because growing potatoes in the lab is not the same as growing them in a field. Her position is that these GM potatoes would cause a major problem with cross pollination of other crops in the area (5). One risk farmers also could have is the health problems for the animals eating the potatoes. All potatoes that don’t go to market get scraped or used as feed. The problem with this is that since the potatoes are not cooked toxins remain in the potatoes and can cause harm to the animals (6). A survey was given to farmers that asked about the advantages of growing crops and seventy-six percent of farmers found a productive reason for growing the crops (7). When asked about the disadvantages of growing GM crops majority stated they fear the public resistance to GM crops (7). The farmers must also weigh the positives of GM potatoes and there are many. The GM potato is able to decrease the cost of production saving the farmers money. The farmers are able to use less pesticides that improves the quality of their land. The farmers also putting a better product on the market that is more nutrient. It is up to the farmer to weigh the pros and cons of growing GM potatoes, but I believe that the farmers will do their research and come to the right decision of growing GM potatoes.
Consumers that do not fully understand biotechnology may have some objections to purchasing a genetically modified potato or any other crop that has been genetically modified. The first fear consumer usually have is that we should not trust this new technology. The fact is that mankind has been using this process for over eight-thousand year. Back then the farmers would take the best crops and reproduce them for next year’s harvest. The only difference is that in today’s technologically advanced world scientist are able to protect the crops by modifying their genes and help them prevent harmful pesticides and bugs. The consumer must ask question about how ethical this process really is.
Although GM potatoes seem like a great idea we must weigh the pros and cons because in order to receive the benefits of GM crops we must compare them to the potential risks involved. The risks can be broken down in to four parts environmental, human health, socio-economic effects. The environmental risks are that the GM potatoes may compete or breed with other species and that could threaten biodiversity. The ecosystem may also be harmed as animals eat these GM potatoes because the risks are unknown on what might happen if for example birds consume raw GM potatoes (8). The human risk involved is the fear that allergy-producing genes will be added to the GM potatoes and that may cause a fatal allergy due to the fact crops are not labeled (8). On the socio-economic level small scale farmers would be crushed by powerful seed companies because of their sheer market demoniac (8). The last risk is consumer trust. The public does not trust the industries because of their ‘refusal to label GM foods and such.’ (8) Now that the risks have been weighed we move to the potential benefits of GM potatoes. The environmental benefits are that the crops can actually grow more in less space creating more open land for future use (8). The ability to be resistant to pests and diseases can allow farmers to use less pesticides and avoid spreading more toxins that they already with non GM crops (8). The potatoes grown would also have a longer shelf life then non GM potatoes. The GM potatoes don’t only help the farmers, but they can also help the consumer. Comparing the risk of allergens the GM products could also help block out the allergenic protein that could be found in other foods. The mix of genes can also help with nutritional benefits that can only be conceived using biotechnology for example removing trans fats or caffeine.
With so much information to process the real question is, will consumers eat the genetically modified potatoes? There will always be people who take one side over the other, but let me use Mark Lynas as an example. Lynas was an environmentalist and a leader in the anti GM movement until he did in a little bit of research. After doing his research Lynas realized that the science being done was actually improving the crops more than hurting people or the environment. He even said that ‘You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.’ (9) This was one of the major concerns people had and the fact an anti-GM spokesman said this makes it easier to understand the GM crops are not that bad. Back to the question of would I eat a GM potato? My answer is a definite yes! The reason I would eat the GM potato is because I believe there is nothing to fear as science shows that on the contrary GM crops are able to produce nutrients. Another reason I would eat the GM potato is because we have already been eating other GM crops and nothing has happened to us the consumer. The GM potato is unique with the use of RNAi and all the controversy it stirs up. I believe that in the near future the public will come to see GM crops as a productive way to grow crops and see that the science being done is not harmful to the consumer or the environment. Instead of fearing change we must embrace it and try new things soon the population will outgrow what we can produce. This is just a brush stroke in the big picture we must become informed about what is going on and just take a bite out of it.
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