Gene ‘turned off’ | Arctic Apple raises concerns in some circles
An apple genetically modified to resist browning has been submitted for approval to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, with public comment accepted until July 3.
Resulting controversy has upset the apple cart among British Columbia fruit growers and those with reservations about GM technology.
For Neal Carter, orchardist and president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the new variety is the apple of his eye. His company has the exclusive worldwide licence for use of the non-browning technology in tree fruits.
“Way back in the 1990s, we recognized that having tree fruit crops that were exciting and different certainly stimulated higher returns on the farm and at the same time we recognized that enzymatic browning in apples was something that was really impeding its progress and the consumption of apples in the marketplace,” said Carter.
His company submitted the Arctic Apple for approval in December 2011 after years of testing, some of it involving Agriculture Canada in Summerland, B.C., and more recently in Saskatoon. Carter hopes the apple will be approved by the spring of 2014, although he admits that may be optimistic.
Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), said the apple should not be approved.
“We think the GM apple is simply unnecessary,” she said.
Sharatt said B.C. apple growers have told CBAN they are not interested in growing GM apples, in part through worries over consumer backlash and damage to markets.
“So you have a marginally commercially interesting product that could be a burden for a great many growers,” she said.
Calls to the B.C. Fruit Growers Association were not returned, but Sharratt said the organization has objected to GM apples for 10 years.
Carter said there is a viable market for a non-browning apple in the fast food and fresh produce sector. He points to the success of baby carrots as an example of a new product that improved consumption.
“We saw apple consumption going down every year for 25 years and we saw the grocery stores allocating shelf space for fresh cut, and apples really weren’t participating in that at all,” he said.
Browning is the main cause for apples’ absence and the GM variety requires no dips, chemicals or other treatments to retard browning. Carter said it simply represents the “turning off” of a gene that stimulates browning.
“We are dealing with food service and fresh cut people all the time and they are just excited as heck at being able to have an apple that doesn’t have an antioxidant or treatment dip on it.”
Sharratt said the Ambrosia apple, which was conventionally bred, is also non-browning.
Objections to releasing a GM apple have sparked an online petition by B.C. MLA Lana Propham, the NDP agriculture critic.
Federal NDP agriculture critic Alex Atamanenko is also opposed.
He said the GM trait has potential to spread, contaminating other apples in B.C.’s important Okanagan fruit growing region and affecting markets already under pressure from U.S. grown product.
Carter said research into GM spread has shown there is little movement of pollen by bees, particularly with measures such as non-GM hedgerows surrounding orchards.
He noted apples are propagated by vegetation rather than seed, which makes gene flow easier to control.
“We’ve always known that this was going to be controversial,” said Carter. “These are going to be the most studied apples on the planet.”