GMO Potatoes on The Daily Show

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is not afraid to tackle tough issues with a comedic eye. While The Daily Show has tackled science-related issues such as climate change, evolution, and vaccines many times, genetically engineered crops have not been a frequent feature. Last night, Aasif Mandvi started to change that, and with hilarious results. Watch The Return of a Simplot Conspiracy, where Aasif serves up a meal of Simplot potatoes, with a side-dish of Jeffrey Smith.

It is too bad that the folks at Simplot were not in the episode as well. Perhaps they were wary given previous coverage of their company? (More on that issue here.) The real star of the segment was Dr. Walter De Jong, an Associate Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University. He addressed many of the claims made by Smith, foiled the Shill Gambit as well as endured being pelted by potatoes to show they they were dangerous under the right circumstances.
Still, Simplot should have been there, if only to cut the screen time of Jeffrey Smith. Smith made a number of claims in the interview, some of which he is already attempting to explain. Indeed, he has launched an offensive against the Simplot Innate potato and the Arctic Apple to coincide with his Daily Show appearance. Let’s get on it like DICER on dsRNA.
For more information about Simplot’s Innate potato, see this interview we conducted with questions taken from our readers.


  1. Karl, is there a source of info on how regulatory costs break down? That is, I understand that development is costly, but what are the costs of the deregulatory process? Aren’t the tests that are required those that would be involved in the development anyway? When industry proponents lobby for less regulation, what is it that they want done away with?
    In the video, Dr. DeJong said that GMO foes are increasing regulatory costs – how?
    Thank you for any info. I have searched for information on these issues and all I generally find is total cost of a GMO from inception to market.

  2. “A survey completed in 2011 found the cost of discovery, development and authorization of a new plant biotechnology trait introduced between 2008 and 2012 was $136 million. On average, about 26 percent of those costs ($35.1 million) were incurred as part of the regulatory testing and registration process. The same study found that the average time from initiation of a discovery project to commercial launch is about 13 years. The longest phase of product development is regulatory science and registration activities, at about 5.5 years for traits introduced in 2011.”
    I think the issue is time. In my experience, there’s not a checklist of things you hand over to the FDA which will guarantee your products’ approval. The FDA reviews documents and experiments, and then they come back with questions and requests for clarification, additional data, or additional experiments on certain points. You keep going back and forth until they’re satisfied. That takes a long time and during that period, you have to retain your staff, pay your rent, etc while you aren’t generating any income from the product (but my experience is with Dx instruments, so it may be different with crops).

  3. I would also like to see a better breakdown of costs to bring a GE trait vs a conventional trait to market. What regulatory costs are there really, and what things would the companies do on their own? I asked about this in a Facebook Group called Food and Farm Discussion Lab recently but no one had a good answer, unfortunately. I bet the companies keep this sort of info close hold for many reasons.

  4. Well, let’s say you have a plant that can reduce pesticide use. Let’s say it’s developed with conventional breeding. How much should that cost to get out?
    Let’s say it’s GMO. How much should that cost? What do you think is a reasonable cost for an academic project, Mlema?
    De Jong has said this in the past:

    “Some of the regulations required for crop approval are not science-based, and they have crippled the ability of the public sector to deploy GMOs for public benefit,” De Jong says, “I can make a transgenic potato for less than $50,000, but I cannot afford to pay five to ten million dollars to go through regulatory hoops.”
    What if it’s $10million? What if it’s $5million? Does it really matter in an academic lab? It’s still out of reach completely. What is reasonable Mlema?

  5. It sounds like it’s difficult to learn what exactly is involved, and that whatever it is – it would differ. But if an academic can develop a transgenic potato for 50K, but can’t get it through regulatory hoops without 5-10 million, what is it that the regulatory agencies are requiring that costs so much? Layla’s comment gives some insight as to how the time involved would increase costs, but like Dr. Bodnar, I would like to know what the company would do on their own anyway. I don’t think the industry is asking to simply release any new GMO they’re able to create without making sure they’ve got an effective, equivalent and safe plant. So what are the agencies asking for that’s above and beyond what that evaluation would ordinarily entail?
    Mary, I don’t know what’s reasonable. That’s why I was asking how the costs break down. We shouldn’t be burdening developers with excessive regulatory costs. But I don’t know how the costs are being incurred, so I don’t know how unreasonable they might be. How would you reduce the cost of regulation? What tests or procedures would you leave out? What does the 50K for a GE potato mean? Is it just that I managed to get the gene in there and it works? Do you feel that’s all we should require? I really don’t know and that’s what I was curious about. The big companies are lobbying for less regulation, so I don’t think this is necessarily about opening up competition. The industry will always have the upper hand as long as funds are concentrated there as opposed to the public sector. But I get your point. And I don’t want to try to make an argument for socialism 🙂

  6. Anastasia – the most recent NAS workshop asked each of the presenters to give a cost breakdown (Arctic Apples, Forage Genetics (reduced lignin Alfalfa), and Simplot just for regulatory approval in the US. All said how difficult it would be to exactly quantify, given the many different factors involved, but each gave a best guess estimate.
    The Simplot presenter was the most clear …
    (me paraphrasing … “About 15M for phase 1 Innate, but EPA testing not part of the process (no plant incorporated pesticide), but that will significantly change for phase 2”
    Link to the recorded session is available here:

  7. I love how they can’t find any scientists who will say what they want so they have to form their own science-y sounding orgs. I don’t do plant modifications, but I’m pretty sure Jefferey Smith means ‘DNA’ rather than ‘RNA’ (since that’s the only way the trait would be passed down). What is pictured also appears to be dsDNA, not dsRNA. Someone has a little too much alcohol! (literally)

  8. Very funny. Look, the thing is , we don’t NEED our potatoes genetically engineered. IT is just asking for trouble. What we should be investing in is a way to distribute those potatoes to all who need them. Genetic engineering does not belong in our food system, it seems to me that just because you can , does not mean you should. Messing with Mother Nature is never wise. It’s funny also because most of these ge crops are not delivering on any of their promises such as less pesticides/herbicides, higher yields and drought tolerance. They are merely a vehicle for companies to cash in on a “Product” that we otherwise get for free. So instead of trying to convince us to eat foods that are banned in over 75 countries, please stop using your heavy tactics, such as threatening scientists who do oppose gm technology in our food system and perhaps dedicate your time to helping growers with sophisticated systems that do not rely on the use of risky and unnecessary practices. Growing our food in urban settings using green technologies on rooftop areas is much more important and empowering people to grow their own food in those areas.

  9. “we don’t NEED our potatoes genetically engineered”
    is as much a non response as if I were to answer
    “We don’t NEED to grow our food on rooftops”

  10. Maria –Thus far, I am unaware of any attempt to produce herbicide tolerance in potatos. What has been deregulated are potatoes that block an enzyme causing browning, that reduce conversion of starch to sugars to give longer shelf life, that lower cancer causing acrylimides when cooked, and that arereistant to blight, providing an alternative to srays to control.
    All crop breeding is essentially accessing genetic diversity to bring into a breeding program. Biotech applications in crop genetics allow us to expand the genetic diversity accessible. Genetic engineering does not mean that either the intent or effect is that the crop or the food product has been altered in some sinister way to be an artificial replacement of the crop . Genetic engineering does not replace all the varieties of a given crop, it is one more means of adding traits to any existing variety. Genetic engineering is not the first or exclusive method that allows access to genetic diversity beyond the confines of that existing within a crop species.
    Like any technology, from the internal combustion engine to antibiotics, there are likely to be applications that prove very valuable and others that might prove to be little improvement. We will have to disagree, but I anticipate that the applications with respect to the potato I mentioned will be quite valuable. After throwing out half my home-grown potatoes last year because they turned brown from starch conversion to sugar in storage so quickly, I can readily see the value in the Inate traits and would gladly plant them if available to the home gardener. A potato with longer shelf life might be an asset to your goal of getting them distributed to all who need them.

  11. “Need” is a bit demanding a criteria however. To attempt a strained analogy, to hit a bulls-eye you technically don’t need a sight on your gun either, shoot enough times in the general direction and eventually you’ll get it by sheer luck and the laws of statistics, BUT having a sight will make it a lot easier and quicker (and cheaper given the wasted bullets…).
    Similarly it is perhaps possible as a breeder to get the desired mixture of traits you’re aiming for with conventional breeding, however it’s a lot like shooting blind, it’s very random, you often miss, and it takes a lot longer. Heck each “reload” can takes up a whole growing season! (and then each generation has it’s own smattering of mutations on top of the random allele line up, which I have no idea what that would be in this analogy lol).
    It just seems a lot more sensical to slap on the proverbial scope so you can pick and choose the traits you want and shoot them in with your gene gun in one shot. No finger crossing required. It’s just doing things more accurately and efficiently.
    And as a side note, dropping the analogy, sometimes desirable trait genes are just physically and chromosomally linked with undesirable traits. So under conventional breeding you’re forced to take the good with the bad. Thus if you want those desired traits in your target plant without the otherwise linked and undesired traits, you in fact do NEED genetic engineering to achieve your target result.

Comments are closed.