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Was the Sweet Potato a Natural GMO?

May 5, 2015
NPR recently reported that the first genetically modified crop wasn't made by a megacorporation or or a college scientist trying to design a more durable tomato. It was actually modified by nature.

According to NPR, Scientists at the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, have found genes from bacteria in 291 sweet potato varieties, including ones grown in the U.S., Indonesia, China, parts of South America and Africa. The findings suggest bacteria inserted the genes into the crop's wild ancestor, long before humans started cooking up sweet potato fries.

"People have been eating a GMO for thousands of years without knowing it," says virologist Jan Kreuze, who led the study. He and his colleagues reported their findings last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences...

When our ancestors started to farm sweet potatoes, Krezue says, they very likely noticed the puffed up root and selected plants that carried the foreign genes. The genes stuck around as the sweet potato spread across the globe — first to Polynesia and Southeast Asia, then to Europe and Africa.

"In the U.S., it seems to be important only at Thanksgiving," Kreuze jokes. "But in parts of Africa, it's a staple crop. It's very robust. When every other crop fails, sweet potatoes still grow.

In China, sweet potatoes are used to feed livestock. And in many other places, people saute the plant's leaves to make a yummy dish called sweet potato greens."

"All these farmers — whether they're tending to backyard plots in Rwanda or megafarms in China — are raising a natural GMO."

So why does an 8,000-year-old GM sweet potato matter?

Greg Jaffe, Director of Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that the example might be helpful for regulators and scientists looking at the safety of GM crops.

"In many African countries, some regulators and scientists are skeptical and have some concerns about whether these crops are safe," Jaffe says. "This study will probably give them some comfort. It puts this technology into context."

But the study won't assuage many consumers' worries about GMOs, Jaffe says. "A lot people's concerns aren't just about whether what the scientists have done is natural or whether the crops are safe to eat."