Saturday, April 19, 2003

Spud forecast -- hanging gale:

The end of the french-fry, the potato chip, tater-tots, and potato salad as we know it.

A large portion of the world's population depends on the potato, and not simply for providing fast-food menu items. They rely on it for raw survival. The security of the potato is the security of several hundred million people. And that security is at risk, because the potato varieties we rely on are highly vulnerable. Not to a concerted attack by terrorists, but to a lowly water mold, Phytophthora infestans, the "late potato blight" -- the same disease that caused the Irish potato famine.

The re-emergence of blight poses a real problem, because the mold is now resistant to many of the standard pesticides. Loss rates of 15% are considered acceptable on technologically advanced farms, and lately have risen up to 70% in Eastern Europe and Russia. It's not simply a matter of applying more chemicals - the potato is already the most highly treated food crop in the world, and the blight has become resistant to most of the treatments. In addition, most of the world cannot even afford to use present chemical treatments, let alone new ones, which would be even more expensive. The resistant varieties of mold are spreading, and we have few options.

Current efforts at fighting blight are focused on two approaches: either strengthening the resistance of the cultivar, or finding different ways of attacking the blight itself.

It looks like the only way to strengthen the current cultivars is through the introduction of genes from resistant varieties, or from other plants that resist the same blight. It's not simply a matter of cross-breeding either, because wild potato varieties are usually diploid (they have two sets of chromosomes), whereas the food potatoes are tetraploid. It looks like the only alternative is genetic manipulation. We would end up with a GMO, or a genetically modified organism.

GMOs are currently the center of very active debates concerning their acceptance in Europe, their use in relief supplies for countries facing starvation in Africa, and amazingly enough, as bioweapons in political struggles in Mexico. GMOs, like nuclear power, cause visceral reactions in people that cannot be effectively counteracted by education.

The situation we will face in a few short years will be that the only viable form for a critical food crop will be as a GMO. If you want to eat a potato, it will be a GMO. Period. All unmodified potatoes will be economically unfeasible for commercial farming. That means that some very powerful players in the food industry will have to reconsider their positions on GMOs. Frito-Lay. McDonalds. Burger King. Ore-Ida. The Health/Elder care industry. School systems. Corrective Institutions. Almost any aspect of the food industry has to deal with potatoes.

What about the second alternative -- finding different ways of attacking the blight itself? Wouldn't gene sequencing of the mold help? Well, yes and no. The amazing thing about molds is that they have incredibly complex genetics. Phytophthora infestans has over 200 million base pairs, and we have only just started to decypher their function (humans have about 3 billion). This kind of complexity could take decades to work through, and we do not have that kind of time.

There's a slight chance that the lowly potato will completely change the world's opinion of GMOs. And the race to 'invent' the super-potato is already on.

"Just try and have none. I bet you can't."