New Zealand Researchers Investigate Safer, Cadmium-Free Potatoes

Researchers at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury (UC) are looking to improve food safety levels by creating cadmium-free potatoes
November 15, 2013

Researchers at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury (UC) are looking to improve food safety levels by creating cadmium-free potatoes.

Initial research conducted by Dr David Leung, a biotechnology lecturer at UC, and his PhD student Seyedardalan Ashrafzadeh focused on the health risks of cadmium present in potatoes. Cadmium has long been thought of as a probable cause of cancer. The US Environmental Protection Agency also fears the element may cause other long-term health problems, as the human body has no way to eliminate cadmium. This means it could accumulate in the liver and kidney for years.

Cadmium Levels Could Be On The Rise

Phosphate fertilisers that boost crop growth often contain cadmium, which permeates agricultural soils. Sewage sludge and nickel-cadmium batteries also contribute to cadmium in the environment. Unlike many toxicants, cadmium cannot be broken down by microorganisms. This means that cadmium levels could potentially continue to rise in soils.

“Cadmium can enter the food chain. It is not rocket science to find that a major route for dietary intake of the toxicant arises from the uptake of the toxicant from agricultural soils by food plants, including potatoes,” explained Mr Ashrafzadeh. With Dr Leung’s help, Mr Ashrafzadeh hopes to create potatoes with a “limited potential to uptake and accumulate cadmium from soils.”

Plant Biotechnology Being Investigated

The new potatoes may be a natural variation on existing crops or an entirely new species.

“The potential of a plant biotechnology based on plant tissue culture is being investigated to assist the identification and generation of potentially new low cadmium accumulating variant plants during culturing of potato cells in the laboratory,” Mr Ashrafzadeh explained.

Early studies have shown some cultured potato cells seem to take up less cadmium than others. The UC researchers plan to conduct more research about this before raising potato plants from the optimum cultured cells.

Potatoes The Fourth Most Cultivated Crop

After wheat, rice, and maize, potatoes are the fourth most cultivated crop on the planet. New Zealand’s $500 million potato industry produces half a million tonnes of potatoes annually. The potential to create safer potatoes has serious implications for the country’s already profitable potato industry.