Published online: Nov 15, 2011 Seed Potatoes
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More than a decade has passed since Jim Tiede was among the growers caught up in a debacle over the first U.S. genetically modified potato variety.

Even today, the American Falls, Idaho, grower copes with the fallout of planting Monsanto's GM potato New Leaf, as processors still ask him to submit a certificate proving his fields are testing free of its patented gene.

Now Tiede, chairman of the Idaho Potato Commission, will be an observer as Europe reacts to a new GM table potato, Fortuna, developed by German-based BASF Plant Science.

Aside from the critics' visceral concerns about so-called "Frankenfoods," Tiede found nothing wrong with New Leaf, developed in the mid-1990s to resist Colorado potato beetles and some viruses. Though New Leaf could be grown with 80 percent less pesticide, Monsanto discontinued the program in 2001 due to a lack of acceptance of a GM potato by key markets and trade partners.

Tiede is hopeful that Fortuna, modified for resistance to late blight, may reopen the door for GM potatoes in the U.S.

Late blight, caused by the fungi-like pathogen Phytophthora infestans, reduces annual yields by roughly 20 percent worldwide.

BASF, the world's leader in chemical sales, applied Oct. 31 for European Union approval of Fortuna, which could be commercially available by 2014 and would be the company's second GM potato approved by the EU.

In March 2010, the EU approved its first genetically modified crop in more than a decade, the BASF potato Amflora, modified for high starch content and not intended for human consumption.

The European Food Safety Authority will now assess the safety of Fortuna, which has been tested in field trials for six years, according to a BASF press release. Dutch scientists discovered Fortuna's resistance gene in a South American wild potato.

Tiede said he's amazed Fortuna will be introduced in Europe, where even U.S. GM corn isn't tolerated.

Tiede believes Fortuna would prove useful in Idaho, where late blight is acclimating to colder weather, forcing local growers to start spraying for it.

"It could be a really great thing, but BASF better do their homework," Tiede said.

Tiede noted exports of U.S. dehydrated potatoes suffered as a result of international concerns about New Leaf. The U.S. started an expensive testing program of its dehydrated potato exports in 2001, after Japan implemented a massive recall of snack foods bearing the GM product.

Since then, University of Idaho Extension economist Paul Patterson said, GM potato research has continued "on the back burner," though most in the industry anticipated its resurgence.

As more GM varieties are introduced, Patterson believes the dialogue will center around "the whole issue of consumers having knowledge of what's in the food they eat so they can make a choice."

Travis Blacker, president of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association, sees GM crops as one way to feed a world population that recently exceeded 7 billion.

"We're going to need tools to improve our yields and quality," Blacker said.

SOURCE: Capital Press