Apples have become the latest controversial entry into the genetically modified food debate, following a July 12 New York Times piece written by Andrew Pollack. Okanagan Specialty Fruits, a small British Columbia company, wants to start marketing a non-browning apple, and it has applied for approval in Canada and in the United States.
The Arctic apple, available so far in the Golden Delicious and Granny Smith varieties, contains an extra copy of a gene which interferes with the enzymatic activity that causes browning. The enzyme is polyphenol oxidase.
According to Neal Carter, founder and president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the non-browning Arctic apple is just what consumers are looking for. A whole apple, he tells the Times, is “for many people too big a commitment,” and apple slices that have browned just aren’t appetizing. (What a burden we bear — to have to eat a whole apple, let alone an unsightly one.)
Carter suggests that it is merely a cosmetic change intended to encourage people to eat more apples. But it’s more than that, of course.
It is intended “to turn the apple into an industrialized product,” said Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, as reported in the Times. In Common Ground, a Canadian monthly magazine dedicated to health, wellness and ecology, Yukon farmer Tom Rudge says, “We should eat real food instead of genetically engineering an apple so companies can slice it, wrap it in plastic and truck it across the country.” Organic apple farmer Harry Burton of Salt Spring Island sees it as “an indication of our distancing from nature.” In more ways than one.
As Pollack reports, the U.S. Apple Association opposes the introduction of the Arctic apple, but not out of any objection to genetic engineering. In fact, they declare on their website that “in order to continue discovering new and valuable benefits from apples, U.S. Apple supports advancements from technology and genetics and genomics research.” The problem for U.S. Apple, Pollack writes, is that the non-browning Arctic apple “could undermine the fruitís image as a healthy and natural food, the one that keeps the doctor away and is as American as, well, apple pie.”
A genetically engineered food isn’t natural, of course, but it’s the appearance of being healthy and natural that the apple industry is far more concerned with. The issue I take with the use of this technology in food, however, is the degree of risk for unintended, unwanted consequences that it introduces, especially where it’s exploited for relatively frivolous purposes.
Last month, the Times reported a story on why our red, ripe tomatoes are so flavorless. (See Care2′s Kristina Chew’s response to that story.) It has to do with a genetic mutation that occurred by chance and was discovered by tomato breeders who cultivated it because it produced tomatoes that were uniformly red. As it turns out, “the very gene that was inactivated by that mutation plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are the essence of a fragrant, flavorful tomato.” To James J. Giovannoni of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service, the mutation’s effect was a surprise, an unexpected discovery, “a story of unintended consequences.” A tomato researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Harry Klee, said, “In trying to make the fruit prettier, they reduced some of the important compounds that are linked to flavor.”
But what other consequences might there be of which we are not yet aware? Maybe none, maybe many. In response to the Times story on the genetically engineered apple, one commenter from Eureka, CA, wrote, “If I know anything about the deep irony of the universe, polyphenol oxidase” — the enzyme that causes the browning — “will be the enzyme that ‘keeps the doctor away.’ We’ll trade real health for the appearance of health without even knowing it.”
Photo Credit: visulogik