by MIKE BEAUDIN
Canadian apple growers are worried a genetically engineered apple from British Columbia that won’t turn brown when it’s cut open will make consumers think twice about the old adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week approved two genetically engineered apple varieties designed to resist browning developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits.
Company president Neal Carter plans to market the apples as Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden and has hailed the approval as a “monumental occasion.” He said he’s confident Canadian regulators would approve the genetically engineered apple, 15 years in the making, later this year.
UPDATE March 25, 2015: In a release issued March 20, Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. Announced that it had received approval from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada for the commercial sale of its apples. The company says in a letter it received from the Agency, the apples were described “as safe and nutritious as traditional apple varieties.”
On its website Health Canada says it approved the Arctic Golden Delicious and Arctic Granny Smith varieties. Writes Health Canada: “The science behind the Arctic apple is quite simple. A gene was introduced into the Arctic apple that results in a reduction in the levels of enzymes that make apples turn brown when sliced. In every other way, the Arctic apple tree and its fruit are identical to any other apple.
“Scientists with expertise in molecular biology, microbiology, toxicology, chemistry and nutrition conducted a thorough analysis of the data and the protocols provided by the applicant to ensure the validity of the results.” END OF UPDATE
But growers are worried the engineered fruit will turn consumers against all categories of apples. The BC Fruit Growers Association asked Ottawa to place a moratorium on approving the Arctic apple until consumer reaction in the United States can be assessed.
“We regret that the United States is approving the Arctic Granny Smith and Arctic Golden Delicious. The apple is considered a pure, unadulterated product, similar to milk,” said association president Fred Steele in an association-issued statement on Feb. 13. “In a 2012 national survey of consumers, 71 per cent said there should be categories of food that should not be genetically engineered. Our members would like the apple market to remain free of GM (genetically modified) apples,” he said.
In a telephone phone interview Steele said he expects Ottawa will approve the Arctic apple later this year. The apple can’t be grown or sold into Canada until it’s approved by both the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada.
Carter said Arctic apples would first be available in late 2016 in small, test-market quantities. Like any other new apple, it will take many years before the fruit is widely distributed.
He said consumers could feel confident in the rigorous review of Arctic apples, which have been grown in field trials for over a decade, and “are likely the most tested apples on the planet.”
John Kelly, executive vice-president of The Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said consumers may see the benefits of a non-browning apple but that doesn’t mean they accept the technology behind the process.
“Our position would be we are reluctant to support things that could negatively impact the sales and reputation of our current products,” said Kelly in a phone interview. “Anything that may have a negative impact on the market is going to be concerning to us so it depends on how it’s perceived, how it’s brought forward and what value the consuming public sees.”
He said U.S. approval doesn’t always lead to Canadian approval.
The USDA concluded that the Arctic apples are nutritionally equivalent to non-genetically modified apples, have the potential for longer shelf life, won’t affect organic growers and doesn’t have to be grown in segregated areas. The report said field trials showed the Arctic apple doesn’t pose a pest, disease or health risk to other plants or people.
The company said developers silenced the gene sequence that creates the enzyme in the fruit’s cells that turns its flesh brown when the flesh is exposed to oxygen. The result is a product that still rots, but doesn’t exhibit “superficial damage,” according to the company.
Kelly said there are no genetically engineered fruits or vegetables now grown in Canada. He said consumers are okay with modifications like those made to sweeten the Honeycrisp apple but they are skeptical about the genetic engineering process.
“It’s concerning because the consumer is not really knowledgeable when it comes to a lot of these different technologies. There’s a lot of fear out there. Whether it’s warranted fear or not, that's a tough one.”
Kelly said the genetic engineering process used in the Arctic apple is more visible to consumers because it alters the end product. By way of contrast, genetic modification used for crop protection, such as enabling corn to withstand the application of a specific herbicide like glyphosate, is considered an input process because it’s used to aid production.
Steele said BC Fruit Growers don’t want to see the two Arctic apple varieties in Canada because they believe consumers won’t distinguish between genetically modified and non-modified apples.
“(GMO) is a subliminal label and we're afraid of a consumer backlash,” said Steele. “There is so much confusion out there.”
The BC Fruit Growers and Quebec Apple Producers’ Association commissioned a national survey in 2012 on the public perception of genetically engineered fruit and the Arctic apple. Asked whether they thought Health Canada should approve the genetically engineered apple, 69 per cent of respondents said no.
Of the 1,501 respondents in the national survey, 76 per cent said that the Canadian government has not provided adequate information about genetically modified food. A further nine per cent said they had not heard of genetically modified food prior to the survey. BF