Developer of Simplot's GMO Potatoes Renounces His Creation

The developer of Simplot Plant Sciences’ genetically engineered Innate potato says the food his team created is hazardous to your health.

In the year 2000, Dr. Caius Rommens came to what would eventually be called Simplot Plant Sciences, part of the industry giant J.R. Simplot, to direct a groundbreaking biotechnology program. He came there from Monsanto which at the time was known as the leading place to innovate in the field of genetically-modified crops (GMOs).

When Rommens took on his new role as research director for Idaho-based J.R. Simplot, his new employer was already well-known for making billions of dollars through the commercialization of frozen fries. In the early 1970s it was the primary French fry supplier for McDonald’s and kept that position as it continued to supply over half of McDonald’s French fries even past 2005. It was well-capitalized too. So, when Rommens led the team to look at improving the potato which nature had created, he had a ready market waiting inside a company with an extensive reputation in the field.

What he and his team did was to create the genetically-modified Innate potato. It was designed to resist blackspot bruising and browning. In a nod to health, it was even designed to have less of the amino acid asparagine than normal potatoes have. That often converts to the probable human carcinogen acrylamide during the frying of the potatoes. So less of asparagine was a good thing for health, but it also would sell well for those using it for French fries because the cooked potatoes would be less “colored”, more “golden”.

An even more positive trait of the new potato was that the genetic modifications did not include any genetic material from other species, unlike the way many other genetically-modified (GMO) foods have been created. That’s why the brand is called Innate; the GMO potato only includes genes already “innate” to potatoes.

It took twelve years to develop the Innate potato. Its innovations were sufficiently ground-breaking that the company has been awarded over 60 patents for their work. The product was approved for sale by the USDA in 2014 and then by the FDA in 2015. It has been a tremendous success and is currently distributed in over 4,000 U.S. supermarkets to unwitting consumers. It has also been approved for sale in Canada though it is not yet available there yet.

To create the new Innate potato without switching out genes, what Rommens and his team did at Simplot was to do what is called “silencing” the effect of an existing family of genes called RNAi. “Silencing” is a genetic modification which switches off the effect of those genes. He and his team developed a means of silencing the polyphenol oxidase (PPO) gene in potatoes. That’s the gene which allows browning to happen in potatoes.

While stopping the browning did achieve the desired effects that Simplot was looking for, as Rommens has learned later, it also did something else that was one of the good things the now-silenced gene used to do, prior to the genetic modifications. It used to hold back the levels of alpha-aminoapidate in the potato as it grows. Further, by eliminating some of the natural darkening which happens when potatoes are bruised, it also hid some other side effects of bruising which had not yet been fully understood.

The first of those side effects allowed alpha-aminoadipate to increase in the Innate GMO potatoes by a factor of six, according to research done by ex-colleagues of Rommens. Besides that it is a dangerous neurotoxin on its own, it can easily react with sugars to produce what happens described in a recent interview as “advanced glycoxidation products implicated in a variety of diseases”.

According to other ex-colleagues of Rommens, a second direct side effect of the silencing is the increased production of chaconine-malonyl by a factor of around 200 percent. This is yet another potentially deadly toxin which needs studying.

Besides the gene silencing directly contributing to the production of these dangerous substances, the masking of bruising creates another problem for potato consumers. Bruised potato tissues can accumulate large levels of yet another toxin – tyramine. But with the bruising not visible, it is hard to identify where the damaged tissues and tyramine may be located. Bruising also opens the opportunity for other plant infections to enter and contaminate the potatoes and sicken those who eat them.

Worse still for the gene silencing effect is that Rommens believes it may be passed on to other animals or insects which consume it. As he noted in a recent interview, “Silencing is not gene-specific. Any gene with a similar structure to the silencing construct may be silenced as well.” He expressed concern that the “silencing that takes place inside the GM potatoes” may further affect animals or even bee larvae (fed by bees which gather GMO potato pollen). And of course it could also silence genes in the human digestive tract (microbiome) and in human cells.

Dr. Rommens documented much of this in his recent book, Pandora’s Potatoes. In it, he says, he simply wanted to issue a warning about the Innate potatoes and the unintended consequences of the field of genetically-modified foods. He is also doing interviews to help spread the word of what happened.

On October 16, J. R. Simplot issued a statement condemning the book and what Dr. Rommens has been saying publicly about the development of the Innate potato. The company goes out of its way to call the book “self-published”, perhaps as a way of diminishing the credibility of its contents. Then it calls the book “defamatory”, saying it is “filled with false and misleading statements and speculation about the development and safety of [the company’s] bioengineered potato varieties”. It goes on to say that Rommens’ concerns about those eating the potatoes “may experience serious adverse health effects” as “not true”.

Nowhere in the statement does J. R. Simplot discuss the specific toxins that Rommens describes in his book or has brought up in his interviews. They simply say they “vigorous tested” the “potatoes for toxins in field trials and found them to be no different from conventional potatoes”.

In a public response to the J. R. Simplot statement, Cummens says that “The Simplot agbiotech team read the book and has evidently decided to try to make it – and me – look bad, while at the same time ignoring the scientific and technical issues it raised.” He goes on to say that, “This approach will not advance scientific knowledge but on the contrary seems calculated to shut down scientific discussion and investigation, as well as public debate, through a veiled legal threat.”

As this argument goes forward, that “veiled legal threat” will likely convert into a real one. It will, just as Dr. Rommens says, shut down the discussion and frighten others who might help illuminate the truth of the science involved.

What the argument has done already is to help us understand yet another example of how it is close to impossible to consider all the implications of bioengineering in creating any significant modifications to what nature has already created on its own.

The harm can be as simple as reducing biodiversity in a crop species and then realizing too late that it makes them an easy target for rapidly-evolving pests (such as has happened with Monsanto’s GMO corn in India, for example).

The damage can be more complex with GMO crops perhaps “better” in some ways helpful to marketers but also resulting in higher amounts of toxins in the product (such as with many GMO soybeans and now the GMO potatoes created by Simplot).

It can even be that the weed killers used in conjunction with herbicide-resistant GMO crops turn out to be at least as dangerous as the GMO crops themselves, so their widespread use ends up poisoning many – as a school groundskeeper in California learned far too late in applying Monsanto’s glyphosate-laced Roundup “as directed” for years and then developed terminal Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Dr. Rommens’ arguments with his former employer will play out over time and likely including the courts.

For those who care about their health it is wiser to choose non-GMO potatoes.