Coming soon, the not-so-humble potato with more vitamin C than a lemon

·3 min read
Peeling potatoes - Kinga Krzeminska/Moment RF
Peeling potatoes - Kinga Krzeminska/Moment RF

Potatoes with as much vitamin C as a lemon could be grown and sold in England within five years using “game-changing” gene-editing technology, scientists have predicted.

Researchers at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee could double the amount of vitamin C in a new strain of potato by snipping out sections of its DNA.

Lemons and oranges contain approximately 53mg of vitamin C per 100g.

But Prof Derek Stewart, director of The Advanced Plant Growth Centre at the institute, told The Telegraph his team could increase levels in a potato to around 40mg.

He said the team would look to “overshoot” this figure “significantly further” to compensate for the loss in vitamin C that occurs during cooking.

Other strains of spuds being developed

They are also developing strains which cook in a third of the time, have greater resistance to disease, heat and pesticides with no loss in flavour.

Gene editing, a separate process to gene modification, involves cutting out a small section of a plant’s DNA, allowing researchers to quickly develop new strains of crops which would have taken decades through natural cross-breeding.

Potatoes are an especially suitable candidate for gene editing as hardier strains can be exported to poorer countries, with more extreme climates, and provide up to three times more yield.

In Malawi, farmers typically harvest 14 tonnes of potatoes per hectare. In the UK the figure is 60 tonnes.

‘It will game-change everything’

Prof Stewart said: “It will be transformational, that’s the word. I wouldn’t say disruptive. It will game-change everything.

“We are looking at yet another food crisis. We have got seven and a half billion on the planet, you are going to struggle to feed them all. You have to tweak the plan, gee it up, we call it accelerated breeding.

“It’s a transformative tool, that’s the way it has to be looked at.”

Current environment legislation allows gene-edited crops to be grown and sold in England but it is banned in Scotland and Wales.

Asked when we might expect supermarkets to stock gene-edited crops, Prof Stewart predicted “within five years”.

He stressed there would be no loss of taste in “any shape of form” for gene-edited potatoes as molecularly inbreeding technologies “are so specific in what you get”.

He added: “What you want to do is ameliorate or change the bad bits ... in fact what you are doing is tailoring the texture to give it a different mouth feel. Some people like a slightly waxier potato, others a more floury potato.

“We can develop the technologies that allow you to change so many things.”

Mixed views on genetic editing

The EU has ruled that genetically edited crops must be treated the same as genetically modified crops which are subject to incredibly strict regulations.

But Brexit has now allowed the UK Government to produce its own legislation and Downing Street has encouraged the devolved nations to embrace the technology.

In a speech at the Royal Highland Show on Thursday, Lord Malcolm Offord, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, said gene editing is not genetic modification but “an update on what plantsmen have done for generations”.

He said: “The science is safe and proven and it is incumbent on us at a time of international strife to look at ways to maximise secure domestic supplies of food”.

However, Mairi McAllan, Scotland’s Environment Minister, said they remain opposed to the use of genetic modification in farming, “to protect the clean, green brand of Scotland’s £15 billion food and drink industry”.

She said while the government is closely following scientific and other considerations on the decoupling of genetic modification and editing, “our position has not changed and the UK Bill does not change that”.