Pandora’s Potatoes: The Worst GMOs

review by Bob Banning

pandora-potatoesIn this self-published book, Caius Rommens, a former genetic engineer who developed GMO potatoes as an employee of a potato company, wants to warn us about these potatoes. Their claimed benefits, he says, are false, but the harm they can cause to both farmers’ profits and eaters’ health is real and serious. He supports his argument with 109 endnotes, most of which appear to be citing scientific and trade journals.

In the book’s foreword the author relates that over several years while working for his now-former employer he gathered observations about unintended effects that his work had on potatoes. He left his employer because he couldn’t in good conscience continue to do the work that his position required.

In the introduction, Rommens states that the two main problems the potato industry struggles with are (1) coping with loss from diseases, pests, and handling and (2) convincing people that French fries are healthy so that they buy more of them. The main chapters explain how the author engineered potatoes to deal with these problems and how the results led him to believe that the potatoes he was developing were bad for the potato as a species and also for consumers.

Chapter 1 discusses the “silencing” of a gene called PPO. PPO causes potatoes to bruise under stress. Blocking PPO was supposed to eliminate bruising. According to Rommens, however, PPO silencing hides bruises but does not actually eliminate them. Thus the people who sort potatoes at various stages of processing will not remove bruised potatoes since they don’t see the bruises. Diseases will develop at the sites of the bruises, and as those potatoes are processed by machinery, the machinery will be contaminated by pathogens, which will then also contaminate healthy potatoes. The author also claims that several toxins develop in PPO-silenced potatoes.

Chapter 2 explains that genetic engineers silenced the ASN gene to reduce the amount of acrylamide in French fries on the grounds that acrylamide is a carcinogen. Rommens counters that a person would have to eat at least a thousand times as much acrylamide as there is in regular French fries to be in danger of cancer. Meanwhile, when ASN is blocked, it can’t play its important “role in the [plant’s] assimilation, storage, and use of nitrogen.”

Chapter 3 evaluates the silencing of the INV gene, which is responsible for the plant’s production of glucose and fructose and thus for the color, aroma, and flavor of potatoes. Because INV-silenced potatoes produce less of these nutrients, they don’t smell or taste as good as nonengineered potatoes, the author says. Glucose and fructose are also important for the health of the plant, and INV-silenced potatoes tend to be delayed in field emergence and may be compromised in fertility, according to Rommens.

Unlike earlier chapters, chapter 4 concerns the insertion of a gene rather than the silencing of one. Rommens begins by alleging that the gene “was isolated, without authorization or compensation,” from a plant in Argentina and that therefore the company that took it out of Argentina and used it to develop traits for U.S. potatoes violated the international Convention on Biological Diversity—an act of “biopiracy.” VNT was introduced into potatoes, he says, because it’s a resistance gene, or R-gene, that has been found to confer some resistance to late blight in potatoes. According to Rommens, however, this resistance will be short-lived, because the late blight pathogen will evolve resistance to the R-gene; and even if engineers replace this R-gene with a new one or even if they “stack” several such genes, they won’t be able to keep up with the pathogen’s ability to evolve.

Chapter 5 argues that genetically engineered potato varieties produce lower yields and smaller potatoes, that the new traits are unstable, and that the altered genes in the potatoes can contaminate the DNA of pollinators.

Rommens concludes with a brief chapter arguing that potatoes should be bred for genetic diversity rather than uniformity, because genetically diverse potatoes will be more tolerant to stress as a crop and more nutritious and flavorful as food. He recommends “methods such as hybrid-seed technology.”

I’m not qualified to evaluate this book in scientific terms, but I do believe its arguments give reason for being suspicious of the claimed benefits of, and possible harm from, genetically engineered potatoes. Given other things I’ve learned from my reading and through NOFA, the kinds of things Rommens says happen when potatoes are engineered seem like the kinds of things that would happen. Even if I don’t know enough to accept all Rommens’ arguments with certainty, he’s given me a new set of questions to ask about the potatoes I buy.

In order to pursue their own questions, readers may be interested to know that the GMO potatoes mentioned in the book are called White Russet, Innate Potato, and Hibernate. From the internet I learned that Rommens’ former employer, the producer of these potatoes, is the J. R. Simplot Company. You can search for the above names to find out more about the dialogue between Rommens and J. R. Simplot.

Interestingly, although much of what Rommens writes is in harmony with principles of organic/regenerative agriculture, he assumes that pesticides are needed to combat insects, fungus, and disease. He seems unaware of research showing that healthy plants effectively resist these pressures.

The author would have enhanced his credibility by investing in a good editor and book designer (full disclosure: I’m an editor). The text contains many avoidable errors, including grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes and confusing and illogical sentences. In reading the first two pages of endnotes, I found eight errors on the first page and nine on the second. The author also has a loud, grade-school-like way of using boldface, italics, underlining, and capitalization for emphasis. On the other hand, the author uses many graphics and helpful analogies to clarify scientific and other data. On the whole the book manages to communicate pretty well what the author believes is wrong with GMO potatoes and will help you ask your own questions.