Posted on

Small Potatoes?

Mr. Potato Head has some competition! Recently the Smithsonian Magazine showcased an article about how scientists working together in the US and China inserted a human gene into potatoes to increase their crop production by about 50%. The particular gene they used is the one that encodes fat production and obesity in people through a protein called “FTO”. The idea behind using the gene is to combat climate change and end world hunger with creating a plant that can produce more efficiently without taking up more space.

Sounds kinda good, because who wants to ignore hunger or climate change and our role in it, and producing more of anything in less space is something we as humans seem to be drawn to. Plants don’t have their own equivalent of the gene that introduces the FTO protein, so when it was added in, the article states, there’s no genetic system in place to keep it in check. Scientists weren’t sure if they’d end up with dead potato plants or not, and were surprised to find the plants produced bigger potatoes. Turns out, they grew larger potatoes – and – it even worked with rice plants. More studies have to be done with repeatable results for scientists to be certain this wan’t just an anomaly. That work will take years, and then it might be introduced to the market and find ways into our stores. You can read the article here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/researchers-transfer-human-protein-plants-supersize-them-180978443/

When I was working on my undergraduate degree at the Ohio State University in agriculture, I remember hearing about gene splicing for the first time. The professor talked about scientists working on tomatoes being crossed with flounder (the fish) genes in order to get a tomato that wouldn’t be as susceptible to frost, giving it a longer growing season in colder regions (these, as well as other modified tomatoes are not currently sold in stores). I had been shocked and amazed that science was altering food to that degree, even though I had been exposed to cloning carrot cells in high school. All of that was a long time ago!

Fast forward to today’s grocery store, and you can currently buy corn (and corn products like corn starch), canola oil, sugar (from sugar beets), yellow squash, soybean, and certain potatoes that have been genetically modified. You can also buy meat that was fed modified food sources. All of this is done without labels as far as I can tell, although if produce includes a 5 digit PLU code that starts with the number “8” it means it qualifies as GMO. Even food labelled 100% organic, if processed or packaged, can legally contain up to 30% GMO product per US law.

I’d really like the opportunity to choose what I eat and know that it’s good for me, without some one else making that determination, especially if we have different views on what “good for me” means.