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Some new-and-improved potatoes could show up in grocery stores this year. They promise fewer ugly, black spots when you peel them, and when you fry them, you'll get less of a chemical that may be bad for you. There's just one problem with these potatoes. Some of the biggest potato users won't touch them. They don't even want to talk about them. NPR's Dan Charles explains why.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: For 32 years now, David Douches has been involved in a committed but high-maintenance relationship with the potato.
DAVID DOUCHES: I felt that I kind of stepped in to a beautiful plant to work with.
CHARLES: Not just beautiful, also really important. A billion people depend on it for nourishment.
DOUCHES: I feel that when I work on something like this, it could have a large impact.
CHARLES: Douches is a geneticist in charge of potato breeding at Michigan State University. He wants to make the potato just a little bit better. But the potato, unfortunately, resists improvement. I won't go into the detailed genetic reasons for this, just the result. If you have an almost-perfect potato variety, it's really difficult to make it any better using traditional breeding.
And this is why David Douches has brought me here, to his lab, to see an innovation that he thinks is really exciting - some potatoes that are banging around inside an ancient, rotating wooden drum. This is a bruise test. Douches and his academic colleagues are tumbling two different kinds of potatoes to compare them. One variety is Russet Burbank. It's been widely grown for more than a century. The other one is also Russet Burbank but with a small difference. A big potato company in Idaho, the J.R. Simplot Company, added some extra genes to this potato in the laboratory. The new genes are modified versions of some genes that potatoes already have, and those inserted genes have a curious effect. They shut down the original, natural genes. Scientists call it gene silencing. And we are about to see the results. We peel some potatoes that went through the bruising barrel yesterday and lay them out on a table - first, the traditional potatoes.
DOUCHES: So here you can see the bruises forming on the...
CHARLES: That's a bruise there?
CHARLES: That's another bruise?
DOUCHES: Mhmm. Pretty bad.
CHARLES: The bruises are turning black. If you've peeled potatoes at home, you've probably seen black spots like these. And then we look at the other potato, the one that the Simplot Company modified. There aren't nearly as many as black spots.
DOUCHES: So you can really see a difference.
CHARLES: Oh, yeah.
There's also something you cannot see about these potatoes. If we fry them, the new potatoes won't have nearly as much of a worrisome chemical called acrylamide. When lab rats eat acrylamide, they're more likely to get cancer. Lots of foods have acrylamide - coffee, for instance. But the Food and Drug Administration says it's a good idea to consume less of it. For both of those reasons, less bruising and less acrylamide, Simplot's Vice President for Plant Sciences Haven Baker thinks that consumers should be lining up to buy these new potatoes.
HAVEN BAKER: The number one consumer complaint is black spot bruise. No one that peels potatoes likes to peel it and then you see a black spot. You have to cut it out or, if it's bad enough, throw the potato away. And it's a significant waste issue.
CHARLES: The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the new potatoes two months ago. They're not on sale yet because the Simplot Company is waiting for a green light from the Food and Drug Administration because all these promised benefits come from genetic modification. These are GMOs. And because of that, the very biggest potato buyers appear to be backing away in fear. Frito-Lay and McDonald's both say they're not planning to use the Simplot potatoes in their products. An executive at another potato chip company told me, we are not planning to use these potatoes in our chips, and I don't even want to be quoted about this because someone might misunderstand me and think that we are using GMOs.
Patty Lovera, the assistant director of Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group, says food companies should react this way.
PATTY LOVERA: When you ask consumers if they're comfortable with this technology, they're not.
CHARLES: There may not be anything wrong with these potatoes, she says, but we don't think the government is regulating biotech crops carefully enough.
LOVERA: You know, I don't have some smoking gun to hand you of, you know, this danger or that danger. But we are not comfortable that the review they've gone through can show us that they're safe.
CHARLES: But Michael Jacobson, who has been a healthy food activist for longer than almost anyone, has a different view.
MICHAEL JACOBSON: It's really strange how GMO has become like a curse word.
CHARLES: Jacobson is executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. For the last 40 years, he's been leading the fight against excess sugar, fat, salt and food additives. But genetic engineering? It's just another technology, he says.
JACOBSON: And if we could have genetically engineered crops and then foods that produce safer products, less expensive products, that's terrific.
CHARLES: The FDA does need to examine these new potatoes, he says. But if they do deliver less cancer risk and less food waste, he hopes people will buy them. Dan Charles, NPR News.
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