Community Papers

The EATEN PATH: Genetically engineered apple doesn't go brown

A conventional apple (left) and the genetically engineered nonbrowning Arctic appple (right). - Okanagan Specialty Fruit
A conventional apple (left) and the genetically engineered nonbrowning Arctic appple (right).
— image credit: Okanagan Specialty Fruit

“A mom’s job is never done, but feeding her kids healthy food that tastes great is always a top priority — we want to make that job even easier with nonbrowning Arctic(R) “apples!”

Notwithstanding the sexist language from a blog post on the Okanagan Specialty Fruits website (don’t dads also want to feed their kids healthy food?) there is something decidedly creepy about this sentence.

Maybe it’s the registered trademark symbol next to the name of a breed of apple. But mostly it’s the sales pitch tone . . . for a piece of fruit.

“The perfect fruit just got even better.”

Okanagan Specialty Fruits is a Summerland-based agriculture biotech company, which has genetically engineered Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples that do not go brown for weeks after being cut.

The gene that make the apple go brown is silenced, and the apple is inserted with “nonbrowning apple genes,” according to the company.

And while on the surface, this may sound a little like the solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, Okanagan Specialty Fruit says not only does the Arctic(R) apple help consumers (i.e. kids) get over the “yuck” factor of apple discolouration, enzymatic browning is a significant cost to the entire supply chain.

The Arctic apple is currently not available anywhere in North America, but the company has trees in orchards in the U.S. and is seeking regulatory approval both there and in Canada.

Not surprisingly, the backlash against the genetically engineered (GE) crop has been swift and fierce. This week, provincial NDP agriculture critic Nicholas Simons presented a 7,000-name petition in the Legislature requesting a moratorium on the GE apple.

Simons and the Society for a GE Free BC say the provincial government has refused to carry out promised review of the GE apple. The promise in question was a Ministry of Agriculture response to a 2012 Union of B.C. Municipalities resolution to declare the province GE free in respect to all tree fruits because of the threat of DNA contamination of organic crops.

“The Province recognizes that production of Genetically Engineered (GE) fruit trees and their products, including tree fruit and pollen, raises human and environmental health concerns in export markets,” the Ministry wrote in 2012. “The Province will explore the complex GE fruit issue and the UBCM resolution to request legislation to prohibit the BC production, importation and export of GE fruit trees and their products.”

That never happened.

“Unless the B.C. government acts now, the GE apple could be approved before the promised review takes place,” said Tony Beck of the Society for a GE Free BC. “The government needs to carry out a review which is fair, transparent, and receives adequate input from consumers, farmers and scientific experts.”

Even baby food producer Gerber and restaurant chain McDonald’s confirmed in letters last year to Friends of the Earth in the U.S. that the two companies do not plan to sell or use the Arctic apple.

The B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association has come out against the GM apple, and 20 small grocery stores in the province have committed to not purchasing or selling the Arctic apple in response to a request from the Health Action Network Society.

But University of the Fraser Valley agriculture instructor Tom Baumann says people shouldn’t fear genetically engineered foods, indeed, the planet needs them.

“Those suspicious of anything new and unusual will fight it, those that don’t know what genetical engineering actually means will be suspicious,” he told the Times. “Those that are hungry everywhere on the planet would love to have it. We have the choice to say no to GE products; most people on the planet have no choice at all.”

Baumann argues that genetic engineering is simply the next and most recent step in plant and animal husbandry that began when humans left the nomadic lifestyle and settled down to farm.

Baumann concedes mistakes were made along the way (e.g. Roundup resistant weeds), and he says it is right that every step along the biotech route should be scrutinized and doubted.

“We should not believe everything and think government saves us magically,” he said, but added we have been consuming some GE products, such as lecithin, knowingly and unknowingly for decades.

“We are now entering a phase in our global world where we are in need to feed nine billion people (today around seven billion) by 2050. Unless that increase in people diminishes by disease, war or policy, we cannot feed that amount of people from our current agriculture land and have to become yet another step more efficient.”

Beck responded to Baumann’s comments by saying that the notion we need GE crops and animals to feed the world is an old one, and one that even biotech companies don’t roll out anymore.

“On food shortages, as you may know we now have as many obese people in the world as hungry people, and 50 per cent of food in North America is thrown away,” he said. “Sixty per cent or more of GE crops go to feed livestock in large feedlots, which is a terrible use of resources in terms of relieving hunger.

“In Canada about four million people go hungry every year, but I don’t see a lack of food.”

And for the genetic modifications made by Okanagan Specialty Fruit in its Arctic apple?

“I don’t think anyone has yet made an argument that a non-browning apple is going to help deal with the world hunger problems,” he said.

Baumann suggested that labelling may be the answer.

“And those that can afford it will not buy GE food and those that decide it’s perfectly fine will keep purchasing it,” he said.

The company itself has opposed mandatory labelling, but has said it will voluntarily label its Arctic apple. That label, however, won’t say it’s non-browning nor will it say it’s GE, but, they say, consumers will have a choice and “most will seek out Arctic apple!”

This debate won’t go away any time soon.

• Check out the campaign against the GE apple at gefreebc.wordpress.com and www.cban.ca, and find out the company’s perspective at www.okspecialtyfruits.com and www.arcticapples.com.

• And to find out about the myth of the apple core, see here.

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