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Potatoes in hands still dirty from being harvestedFrom their humble brown beginnings beneath the soil, potatoes have become a staple in the North American diet. They are currently the most consumed vegetable in the US, with a yearly average intake of nearly 50 lbs per person. That means events in the world of the potato affect the lunch bags and dinner plates of a lot of people. 

What qualifies as an “event” in the potato world, you might ask? Genetic modification certainly qualifies. Agri-giant J.R. Simplot’s introduction of the “Innate ‘White Russet’” potato in 2014 was a major event. As so often happens, one thing leads to another: Simplot’s creation pushed potatoes onto the Non-GMO Project’s High-Risk list in 2018, meaning there is a “high likelihood of GMO contamination in the conventional and non-GMO supply chain.” When a high-risk crop is used in a product, the Non-GMO Project requires extra scrutiny before allowing verification.

Read more about potatoes joining the high-risk list

Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to

The 1st generation Innate potato was engineered using RNAi, a form of gene silencing. Gene silencing is one of the new genetic engineering techniques the biotech industry argues does not produce GMOs. We, of course, know that argument is absurd: any process in which an organism’s genetic material is engineered in a laboratory is genetic engineering. Calling it by a different name doesn’t change that. Both the European Union and the United Nations agree that products of genetic engineering, new or old, are GMOs. We think most people agree. 

Those genes that are being silenced in the potato have evolved over millions of years. Genes are “Life’s Little Instruction Book” for a living thing, be it a person, an animal, or a potato. Genes direct our cells to respond to their environment, improving the chances of a healthy and productive life. For a potato, a healthy and productive life includes things like minimizing tissue damage from injury— responding to injury and disease by producing a substance called melanin to strengthen weakened tissue. Melanin also causes discoloration, providing a visual sign that all is not well with the potato. Silencing this gene doesn’t make the potato stronger or better. It doesn’t prevent injury and disease, it only conceals the evidence of it. And that is a very bad idea.

Russet potatoes

The Picture of Mr. Potatohead

The gothic novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” tells the story of a handsome and narcissistic young man who trades his soul to maintain his physical perfection. Once his wish is granted, its power corrupts him: knowing that his exterior will remain unblemished, he dives headfirst into his darkest desires. The passing years bring scandal and misery to those around him. But magic often involves fine print: while he remains flawless, a portrait that was painted of him magically records life’s tolls. With each sinister act, the picture of Dorian Gray grows ever more hideous, chronicling his soul’s decay.

As repugnant as young Dorian Gray would have found any comparison between his lovely self and a potato, the parallel is striking: When a pristine appearance comes at the cost of concealing rot, what damage can be done? The answer, for both Mr. Gray and Mr. Potatohead, is quite a lot.

As ardently as we might wish away an unsightly blemish, when it comes to our food, pigments and spots are full of useful information. They can tell us what is ripe, show symptoms of disease, and alert us to injuries that hasten decomposition. The discoloration that protects weakened tissues is the potato’s version of an orange traffic cone: “Hey, watch it!” it tells us. “GO AROUND!” Based on that data, we decide which bits of food are okay to consume and which are best added to the compost heap. So what happens when those visual cues are removed?

Do we need to trade unnecessary food waste for unsanitary food use? Food waste is, of course, a huge problem. But consuming food that is damaged because that damage is concealed doesn’t solve the problem, it only creates new ones. According to Dr. Rommens, genetically modified potatoes could harbour toxins in the damaged tissue, which might make some consumers feel very ill indeed. The false perfection of GMO potatoes masks those flaws, which are plain to see in their perfectly imperfect non-GMO counterparts.

One Potato, Two Potato

Potatoes pop up in a lot of different places in the grocery store: whole potatoes in the produce section, in processed frozen foods like french fries and tater tots, and, of course, potato chips. They are also used as additives, such as potato starch that acts as a thickener in a variety of prepared foods. To separate the good from the bad, every ingredient and processing aid derived from a high-risk crop is thoroughly evaluated before Non-GMO Project Verification can happen.

GENERAL INFORMATION

The potato has been added to the High-Risk list of the Non-GMO Project Standard. The Non-GMO Project considers crops and inputs to be “High-Risk” when there is a high likelihood of GMO contamination in the conventional and non-GMO supply chain. 

The Non-GMO Project uses a risk matrix to determine the Standard’s High-Risk list. The risk matrix focuses on key criteria, including the number of acres planted, commercial availability, the presence in the supply chain, usage, and its potential use in human food and/or as animal feed. These and other criteria each have an identified risk value within the matrix. As Monitored GMO crops/inputs become more available, they are entered into the matrix; when their total risk score reaches a predetermined threshold, they are recommended for addition to the High-Risk list. The GMO potato has now met this threshold.

What varieties of GMO potato are known to be in the U.S. marketplace?

On the market since 2015, the GMO potato was developed by J.R. Simplot. Currently, GMO potatoes are being marketed under the Simplot Innate brand, found under the trademark White Russet. This variety features multiple traits, including non-browning and the production of lower levels of acrylamide.

In addition to fresh, whole potatoes, what types of products could be affected?

Frozen potato products (e.g., frozen french fries), prepared food that includes potato as an ingredient (e.g., pot pies), foods that contain potato starch as a thickening agent (e.g., sauces, puddings), and certain gluten-free foods that use potato flour in their formulation may all be affected by the move of the potato to the High-Risk list.

How often do new crops/inputs get added to the Non-GMO Project’s High-Risk list?

To date, changes to the High-Risk list have been rare. Alfalfa was moved to the High-Risk list in 2011 and that is the only time since the first version of the Non-GMO Project Standard was published in 2007 that a new crop has been added to the High-Risk list. That said, new product development in the biotechnology industry is accelerating. At the same time that potato is being moved to the High-Risk list, a new variety of untestable RNAi soy is also being added.  

COMPLIANCE REQUIREMENTS

What is the significance of the potato being moved from the Monitored-Risk to the High-Risk list? How does the High-Risk compliance pathway differ?

Inputs on the Monitored-Risk list are those for which GMO versions are in the research and development stage, for which GMO versions have been developed but are not widely commercially available, or for which known genetically modified organism contamination has occurred. Crops on the Monitored-Risk list are evaluated as other Low-Risk inputs and do not require testing. Once a crop has been moved to the High-Risk list, it is subject to testing requirements, or confirmation of compliance by affidavit if the crop is currently not yet testable.

What does the compliance pathway look like for the potato on the High-Risk list?

The GMO potato available in the U.S. today is currently not testable, meaning that no point in the production chain exists at which one can distinguish between a non-GMO potato and a GMO potato using publicly commercially available tests according to the requirements laid out in Section V.B. and Section V.C. of the Non-GMO Project Standard. An affidavit stating that any such non-testable High-Risk input is not the product of genetic modification is required to establish compliance with the Standard. However, the industry is rapidly developing new testing methodologies, and thus compliance pathways for these not-yet-testable crops may change.

What are the affidavit requirements?

Participants will need to provide affidavits confirming the non-GMO status of all potatoes and/or potato derivatives used in Verified Products prior to initial Verification and at each annual renewal thereafter. The affidavit is a standard document created by the Non-GMO Project (available from the Project’s Technical Administrators) that will need to be signed at a critical control point(s) by an individual who has sufficient knowledge of the Participant’s supply chain and understands the Project’s definitions of Biotechnology and Non-GMO. There may be more than one critical control point or individual within a supply chain who will meet these requirements, and the Project’s Technical Administrator will evaluate the appropriateness of the signatory selected.

My products are already Verified. How long do I have to come into compliance?

Adding crops to the High-Risk list is considered a Special Revision to the Standard, provisions for which are covered in the Terms of Reference. Verified participants will have six months or until their next product renewal to come into compliance, whichever is longer. For products that are not yet verified, the new requirements are immediate.

How does this impact the status of backstock and product Verified prior to the move of the potato to the High-Risk list?

Finished, Verified products that contain potatoes and/or potato derivatives will remain Verified. Participants may use existing inventory of potatoes and/or potato derivatives for six months, or until their next product renewal, whichever is longer, without providing affidavits. Any inventory of potatoes and/or potato derivatives that have not been used within this transition period, and any potatoes and/or potato derivatives purchased thereafter for use in Verified products, must be proven compliant via affidavit in order to continue to be used in Verified Products.

Will potatoes be eligible for a Country-of-Origin (COO) Downgrade?

Yes. Similar to all other crops on the High-Risk list, the potato will be eligible for COO downgrades dependent on the GMO regulatory framework and cultivation and import practices of each individual country. This compliance pathway is available for high-risk crops that are sourced from countries where genetically engineered versions of that crop are not grown. For more information on applying for a COO downgrade process, please see this FAQ.

INFORMATION FOR RETAILERS

We have a product policy requiring products with GMO risk ingredients to either be Non-GMO Project Verified or certified organic. Do we now need to start screening for all potato products as having GMO Risk?

Yes, given the current pace of commercialization of the Simplot Innate White Russet, potato inputs should now be treated as high-risk for GMO contamination. Retailers with additional questions about how to apply this in practice may contact our Verification team.

How can I help get the word out so that brands have the information they need to protect against this risk?

The Non-GMO Project is applying a comprehensive communications strategy to alert the industry about this news, including targeted emails, personal follow up communications to leading brands, and engagement with distributors and trade media. Retailers can help by sharing our press release with their vendor lists. Any questions from vendors may be referred to our Verification team; press inquiries may be sent to our Communications team.  

Download the FAQ

Non-GMO Project addresses supply chain risks caused by new techniques like CRISPR and RNAi

Contact: Kristin Wheeler
Phone: 360.255.7704 x131
Email: press@nongmoproject.org

BELLINGHAM, WAOctober 31—The potato has been added to the High-Risk list of the Non-GMO Project Standard because a GMO potato variety is now “widely commercially available” in the United States. To determine when a crop needs to be moved from the Monitored-Risk list to the High-Risk list, the Project uses an established set of criteria related to the likelihood of GMO contamination in the conventional and non-GMO supply chain. As a result of today’s move, products made with potato will now be subject to extra scrutiny before they can become Non-GMO Project Verified.

On the market since 2015, the GMO potato developed by J.R. Simplot has been engineered through a method of gene silencing called RNA interference (RNAi). This genetic engineering technique results in a potato that hides the symptoms of blackspot bruising. Currently, GMO potatoes are being marketed under the Simplot Innate brand, found under the trademark White Russet.

“Browning is nature’s most visible way of letting you know a product is rotting. GMOs that use RNAi to mask the signs of bruising could lead consumers to unknowingly ingest an unhealthy, toxic product,” says Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project.

The Non-GMO Project also announced today that a new variety of soy, produced with a type of gene editing called TALEN, has been added to its High-Risk list. Developments in biotechnology are happening so fast that the Non-GMO Project now has two full-time research staff dedicated to monitoring.

“The supply chain risks we’re now seeing from new GMOs are unprecedented in the decade we’ve been verifying products,” according to Westgate. “Not only are new GE techniques being used, but in some cases biotechnology companies are using unscientific arguments to deceive the public into thinking their products are non-GMO.”

The Non-GMO Project holds a firm position that anything produced with genetic engineering, like RNAi, TALEN or CRISPR, is a GMO. Although unpopular with biotechnology companies, this position aligns with a July 2018 ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union, which determined that these new GMOs are subject to regulation under the EU’s GMO Directive.

“Our research team continually monitors approximately 250 companies involved in genetic engineering—not only how the techniques are evolving, but also what specific products are being created and how they are impacting the supply chain,” said Westgate.

The Non-GMO Project is committed to ensuring that everyone has the information needed to make an informed choice in order to avoid all types of GMOs. As the gold standard for shoppers looking to avoid GMOs, the Non-GMO Project will continue to lead the way in addressing the risks posed by new GMOs.

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For more information view the Frequently Asked Questions.

ABOUT THE NON-GMO PROJECT

The Non-GMO Project is a nonprofit organization committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices. 

 

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