In my writing at Biofortified, I often find myself debunking myths about GMOs and reviewing poor quality papers. But over the years, there has been a trend to use weak data to support genetic engineering, too. Some questionable claims are made by the crop developers themselves.
Two claims in particular stand out: 1) decreasing the amount of acrylamide when frying the Innate potato or White Russet meaningfully reduces cancer risk and 2) increasing the amount of antioxidants in crops is healthier, such as in the pink pineapple or purple tomato (links go to critical reviews).
Benefits supported by weak data
There’s little evidence to support the idea that the acrylamide that is created when potatoes are fried is harmful. Acrylamide in large amounts is known to be harmful. However, one can easily argue that the fat/calories that you’d have to eat in order to be harmed by the tiny amounts of acrylamide in the potatoes will kill you first.
Additionally, there’s little evidence to support the idea that increasing antioxidants in your diet is healthier. Undoubtedly, there are benefits to increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables that we eat, or to increasing the diversity in your diet. However, there’s not much evidence to support the idea that eating fruits and vegetables that are more “colorful” and therefore richer in antioxidants is better.
Despite the weak data, I see GMO supporters unnecessarily using the argument that these GMOs have health benefits time and time again.
Origins of weak claims
My perspective is that these crops were developed at a time when the science suggested that the traits would be helpful. Think about the antioxidant craze that existed 5-10 years ago. Now, science has advanced and the body of evidence suggests that increased antioxidants don’t necessarily prevent disease. 5-10 years ago, we also thought that acrylamide in potatoes might be harmful. But today? Not so much.
For a time, there was fear of acrylamide in fried foods, particularly since it falls under California’s prop 65. Any restaurant that fries potatoes in California must carry a sign stating that there are chemicals on site that are known to cause cancer or toxicity. As such, some food vendors may have been interested in White Russet potatoes as a means to remove the sign from their premises. But today, these signs are so ubiquitous that they are ignored by nearly everyone.
Additionally, there are so many chemicals that now fall under prop 65, that even if acrylamide is removed from french fries, there will surely be something else on the site that will require the warning, like coffee. Many people who decry prop 65 will correctly highlight how the label is meaningless because it warns against hazards and is not based on risk. Yet, in the same breath, they will say how the White Russet can help decrease levels of acrylamide and prevent cancer.
Showcase real benefits, not weak ones
If a company wants to make orange brussel sprouts or black watermelons, they have the right to do so. Once the crop goes through the regulatory process, the developer can grow it and try to sell it. Some GMO crops will have environmental benefits, health benefits, or benefits to farmers. But not all of them have to.
If a crop is more sustainable or healthier, then the importance of the trait should be stressed. The White Russet, for example, will have a non-browning trait in addition to the reduced-acrylamide trait. There’s good reason to purchase the potatoes to help decrease food waste. But if a GM crop doesn’t have a beneficial trait, if the trait introduced is purely cosmetic, that’s OK too.
These crops are as safe than as their non-GMO counterparts. They make our food supply more diverse and more interesting.
Sometimes a pink pineapple is just a pink pineapple. And who knows? Maybe kids will eat more pineapples because they’ll get a kick out of it. Or maybe some fancy chef will win the final challenge in Chopped because they’ll make pink pineapple upside-down cake. You have to assume that whatever company is making the pink pineapple has done sufficient market analysis to know that there’s a market for these traits.
To those of us who take the time to correct misinformation on GMOs: using weak data to support these crops is not only unnecessary, but also a tactic used by those who claim GMOs cause harm.
You write that ‘there’s not much evidence to support the idea that eating fruits and vegetables that are more “colorful” and therefore richer in antioxidants is better.’ This may be true for antioxidants and for consumers in rich countries. However, food crops that are of darker shades of yellow or orange — because they contain higher concentrations of provitamin A — may well be better for consumers who are at risk of vitamin a deficiency (especially children and women in developing countries). So if in doubt, it probably doesn’t hurt to eat a colourful and diverse diet.
I do believe the White Russett was developed to help reduce waste in processing – as so many GE traits are developed. Developers target commodity crops that end up as fast food or as ingredients in processed food because this is a big market.
But the developer of the White Russett claims that the potatoes are the worst GMOs.
“…we had silenced three of potato’s most conserved genes, assuming that the three genetic changes would each have one effect only. It was a ludicrous assumption because all gene functions are interconnected. Each change had indeed caused a ripple effect. It should have been clear to me that silencing the ‘melanin gene’ PPO would have numerous effects, including an impairment of potatoes’ natural stress-tolerance response. Similarly, asparagine and glucose are among the most basic compounds of a plant, so why did I believe I could silence the ASN and INV genes involved in the formation of these compounds?”
He says that the potatoes have as many bruises as non-GMO, but that they’re not visible. Is that desirable?
I question the goals of this kind of development. I think most of the so-called benefit has not been on the side of the consumer, but the side of the producer. And unfortunately, the benefits haven’t really crossed over as lower prices or better quality.
Lisa, the developer of these genetically engineered potatoes also had his paper retracted and resigned after that. According to Retraction Watch, he made stuff up. Simplot’s statement goes further, and says that the false claims in Rommens’ publications were the result of a critic catching him in the lie, not a result of personal reflection. I have one of the few copies of his book in existence and it was hastily thrown together.
That being said, he has made some testable claims, and I hope to have a chance to test some of them, but without evidence (which could be easily obtained), they remain claims from a source that would be perilous to trust.
I do agree that primary benefits from non-browning potatoes will accrue to farmers and processors, from food waste to product quality, but pre-processed (peeled, diced, shredded) could also in the future benefit consumers when and if they become more widely available. I have personally witnessed the differences in quality, having purchased these potatoes in a store and compared them to their equivalents.
Karl, you’re right that benefits will largely go to farmers and processors, but anything that reduces food waste is good for all of us. Also, even when we consider home processing – there is a benefit to being able to prep your potatoes the night before, without them going gross and brown. I might be more likely to make homemade air fries, hashbrowns, latkes, mashed potatoes, etc if I could prep the potatoes ahead of time then cook when I am ready. As it is, I typically only do baked potatoes. Depending on how they are prepared, potatoes are a healthful food, so non-browning potatoes would be good for my family.
Oh yes, pre-preparing raw potatoes, even if just at home and not in the store, is another consumer benefit! I love making hash browns on camping trips, but who wants to shred potatoes on a cold mountain morning? Solution: Shred them at home, throw them in ice, and pull them out, good as new the next morning!
A man who worked for years engineering thousands of GE plants has said that there are potential issues with the potatoes he engineered. The company he worked for wasn’t interested in hearing about it. He published a small book. If you’ve read it, you know that the statement from Simplot isn’t a response to what Rommens wrote, but is instead a CYA kind of corporate PR statement.
So, let me take ONE THING from what Rommens said:
“In the statement, the Simplot team attempts to hide behind the meaning of words. When I express my concern about toxins, the team responds that it vigorously tested for toxins and found no issues. But the team knows quite well that the toxins I am concerned about are different from the one or two toxins that were tested by the company, such as acrylamide. Indeed, my book describes toxins that the company has never mentioned in its publications, such as alpha-aminoadipate, chaconine-malonyl, tyramine, a variety of pathogen-produced toxins, and so on.”
Are you saying it’s impossible that these potatoes could have these toxins at an unhealthy level?
If so, why?
I don’t see that Rommens ever attempted to hurt Simplot, and in fact he has said he “loves” the owner of the company. To me it looks like he’s a scientist who is questioning some of the results of the work he did. Why is it that instead of trying to find out if there’s any validity to what he’s saying, his character and work are trashed?
Is that how science is supposed to work?
Lisa, while this discussion is somewhat off-topic for the post, I would like to point out that Layla’s main point was to say that weak data should not be used to make the case for GMOs. Taken in turn, weak data (or no data) should not be used to make a case against them, either, which is what is going on here.
While it is true that Rommens worked in the development of genetically engineered potatoes for years, he was also caught publishing false information about them. His descriptions of plant tissue culture in his book as “cancer” are obviously inaccurate and hyperbolic, but to people who don’t do tissue culture (I do) it is designed to sound scary. We can go around the Earth with theoretical models describing his motivations (revenge, religious conversion, scientific epiphany, dutiful whistleblower), and how certain actions may better fit one model after another (implied extortion, warm feelings about time working for the company, etc), the fact remains that zero data has been presented by him to back up his claims. Science begins with speculation, but experimentation is a necessary step before forming conclusions.
I did not say that it is impossible that the potatoes could produce more of these compounds, nor that it is impossible that any elevated levels could be unhealthy. I said that the source for this claim was pretty poor and that’s not a good starting point.
I did express an interest in testing the claims, which is a process that would take careful planning and consideration. I am completing one side-project right now and plan to make initial inquiries with the parties involved to see how feasible it would be to study this, along with other claims that might be more fun for a wider audience. I also plan to write about it. How about we agree to continue the discussion when there is something more to discuss?
Thank you for your response.
I believe this discussion is pertinent here, because the post is about consumer benefits and whether there need to be any in order to create and commercialize a GMO. Certainly if there are safety issues, those should be considered before commercialization. The OP talks about the non-browning GMO Russett.
In your comment about Rommens:
“he was also caught publishing false information about them”
The mistake Rommens found in his own work didn’t effect any of the results of any of his research – which is extensive. Certainly not so egregious as Pam Ronald’s errors – for which she was graciously forgiven. Unless and until you provide some evidence to the contrary, the claim that Rommen’s purposefully published false information is defamatory.
The source of the claim that the potatoes might be harmful isn’t as important as whether or not it’s possibly true. And if it’s possibly true, then it should be explored BEFORE commercialization, and not after – and not as money and intent come together, but before the potatoes are eaten.
So, I think it’s putting the cart before the horse to start eating these potatoes while there are outstanding safety issues that the developer himself indicated may arise. As far as weak data vs. benefits, I think we need to think about what’s in the balance. None of it’s beneficial if it’s not safe
I didn’t want to go into too much detail past that, but here is a good page which touches on a number of the issues Rommens raises:
I know that there are many scientists and facilities which have the capability to test Rommens’ claims. But Rommens has said it would probably cost 500K to do so. It should have happened before the potatoes left Simplot – because the regulators obviously aren’t looking at this.
An example from the link of the kind of things that need to be considered is, while a healthy adult might not face increased risk, someone taking MAO inhibitors would not properly metabolize the abnormal amino acid tyramine – which Rommens said may accumulate in the GMO Russet without any tell-tale signs. That’s not a claim we want to wait to evaluate imo.
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