Friday, June 8, 2012

Down With the Brown: The New Genetically-Engineered Arctic Apple

Most of us have a pretty close relationship with nature, whether we recognize it or not.  Whether you're a person that comes closest to nature walking past a tree in the park, or hiking Mt. Everest, you're surrounded by it in some regards- the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat.

This relationship comes with a pretty instinctive level of communication.  You inhale some heavily polluted or toxic air, and you instinctively cough.  You drink water that tastes too strongly of chlorine or metals, your taste buds may keep you from drinking it.  And, if your food has gathered mold, most likely, you visually take that cue and don't take a bite.

This communication is helpful for people to understand what they're consuming... the quality, freshness, or perhaps the potential harm of it.  But, what happens when we take away that ability to subconsciously communicate with what we're consuming?  What happens when, let's say, you can't tell how long ago an apple was sliced because it doesn't turn brown?

Well, well, well... it looks as though there are some folks in British Columbia that have taken this browning issue into their own hands.

"Browning Issue?"

Yeah.  "Browning issue".

Apparently there must me hordes of people out there absolutely livid about the inconvenience of an apple's natural oxidation process, because, for some reason, the company Okanagan Specialty Fruits has used, what I'm assuming to be, quite a hefty load of time and money to create a non-browning apple, the Arctic Apple.  

Beyond the obvious frivolity of using such advanced technology on what seems like such a minor issue, aren't there just a million questions going through your mind?  What is the point of this?  Is it really such a big deal that apples turn brown?  How did they create this apple?  And, has it been tested?

The Arctic Apple's purpose is to withstand the mild abuse it receives in the process of being picked, packed, shipped and set up in the produce aisle, in addition to maintaining the "fresh look" after being prepared or partially consumed.  From a business standpoint, this makes sense.  Profitability will increase if there is more visually pleasing product.  In that department, well done, Artic Apple. 

As for the creation of the apple, it is genetically engineered.  Yes. Another genetically-modified crop.  On the website, the founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, Neal Carter, claims that these genetically-modified apples are "probably the most tested apples on the planet." 

He goes on to say, "When you think of the regulatory environment and oversight that goes into genetically-modified crops and their release to the environment and to the public..."

Wait.  Is something going on in Canada that isn't going on here in the United States?  Are there people that are actually extensively testing GMOs on a federal, regulatory level?  Because, I'm pretty sure the U.S. has officially deregulated a great deal of GMO crops, as well as regularly permitting them in our food supply without notifying consumers where, exactly, we can find them.  Monsanto is allegedly doing their own testing after a stamp of approval from the U.S. government; if this is true, there is clearly a conflict of interest here.

But, as for the apples, the information on who exactly is doing the testing is not clear, though they are currently waiting general approval from the USDA.  With such a large portion of the USDA and biotech corporations working so closely with one another, it is likely that the Arctic Apple will be approved just as many other genetically-modified goods have within the U.S., despite the bans that have been established by many other industrialized nations.

As for labeling, it does look as though the variety of apple will be labeled specifically as an Arctic Apple, though not specifically as a genetically-modified product.  As a consumer, I definitely appreciate transparent labeling- particularly with experimental new foods.  The question is, should this be on the shelves at all?  While it may not be posing any noticeable harm to certain insects or surrounding landscape, will it cause any harm to consumers? 

The process of genetically manipulating an organism could be more harmful than expected.  According to Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology:

"Current understanding of the way in which DNA works is extremely limited, and any change to the DNA of an organism at any point can have side effects that are impossible to predict or control. The new gene could, for example, alter chemical reactions within the cell or disturb cell functions. This could lead to instability, the creation of new toxins or allergens, and changes in nutritional value."

GMOs have been in the headlines for years now, concerning consumers, farmers, environmentalists, and food activists.  And while Okanagan Specialty Fruits may now just be working on altering these genetic traits of apples, they are working towards other fruits as well- and the issues they will be using their biotechnology on are going to be a bit more advanced. 

Is this Arctic Apple merely a method for them to gain some consumer approval prior to opening the doors even wider to GMOs in our food supply?  

Why is this what our technology is being used for?  Why do we spend countless hours and resources to fund manipulation of plant DNA to eliminate the browning of an apple? The site draws up a few lovely pictures of  being able to work through lunch if you need to, or let the kids keep playing... because your apple slices won't go brown!  But, is this really an issue?  Is this really deterring people from working through lunch, or letting their kids play?  Because an apple slice is browning?  

It's a hard sell.  Particularly when, with such an experimental technology, who knows what's at stake.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

You Are What You Eat:  Oregon’s efforts towards a wholesome food system

Concerns about our food system have been plaguing consumers the last few decades.  As a result, we’ve been seeing a budding awareness and concern regarding our food.  Foodies have emerged from the woodwork, infiltrating all of the major cities.  Urban gardens and farmers’ markets are popping up at the most unlikely of places, and frequently.  And many of the portions of the patchwork that makes up the rural areas of this country are now cultivating organic, sustainable produce and livestock- most of which are facilitating educational opportunities for a steadily growing population of twenty-somethings that are interested in making some changes in this world through agriculture.  All of these factors are a direct result of consumers having a strong interest in forming a deeper connection to their food. 

Yet, not all of us are capable of growing our food- even those of us that are tend not to be completely sustainable.  Most of us visit a grocery store or cooperative.  We buy bread, we buy milk, we buy cereal.  Some of us simply read the labels assertions on the front of the box- bold prints claiming “All Natural”, or “Enriched with Vitamin D”.  But, most of us use the nutritional facts posted on the foods.  We want to know the ingredients.  We want to know the fat and calorie content.  We want to know whether the product contains allergens.

But most importantly: We want to know.

This isn’t a new concept.  The interest consumers have had in being informed about what they’re eating is what initiated the nutritional labels in the first place.  The process of regulating the labeling of food began as early as 1906 when the Food and Drugs Act was passed.  

But here we are, in 2012, pleading with the FDA to label a variety of food that has yet to be tested to be proven safe- Genetically-Modified Organisms (a.k.a. GMOs, or Genetically Engineered/GE).  Dennis Kucinich-D, a former Representative of Ohio, sponsored H.R. 3533- Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act, which would demand genetically engineered foods be labeled accordingly.  And, while it’s comforting seeing political representatives fighting for consumer rights, it is undecided how long (if ever) that bill will take to be put into action.  Until then, consumers have decided to take their rights into their own hands.

While many cities have groups of activists educating others on GMOs in their communities, there are some counties, cities and states that are actually making legal progress in labeling and banning initiatives.  The United States is currently one of the few industrialized countries that allow GMOs within their food system, particularly unlabeled.  While some see this as the United States simply being behind the trend, others, like Clint Lindsey, have voiced a concern that many may not be thinking about.

Lindsey, a bean and grain farmer in Corvallis, Oregon, exports a large percentage of his wheat crop to Asia.  He is not alone.  In the Pacific Northwest, roughly 80% of the wheat crops we grow are exported.  Many of the countries receiving this wheat have limitations on GMO crops entering their country, and will halt these imports if they are found to be contaminated.  In this regard, contamination from Genetically-modified seeds could alter more than the ecology and biodiversity of the area’s crops, it could severely affect the regional economy. 

On May 30th I attended a meeting in Eugene, Oregon that offered a panel of speakers concerned about the physical, environmental and economic implications of GMOs within our food supply.  While farmers like Lindsey spoke to the audience about their concerns regarding contamination from these GMO crops, Ingrid Edstrom, FNP,M.Ed, with Infrared Breast Health, LLC, is concerned about health implications involved in consuming pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.

Edstrom has been performing state-of-the-art thermography scans on women’s breast tissue and documenting the results and has noticed a dramatic difference between women that have been consuming organic foods and women that have been exposed to chemicals, either through their food or in concentrated levels in their work or home environment.  Her discoveries are a mere glimpse into the hidden health issues of our food supply.  She urges those she encounters to consume organic foods as much as possible.
The panel of speakers offered a wide variety of information to educate consumers about how to make conscious decisions about their food, as well as being aware of things that are easily hidden and overlooked within our food supply.

A statewide labeling initiative has recently been introduced by GMO-free Oregon, as well as measures in different Oregon counties, such as GMO-free Jackson County and Right to Seed Heritage and Sustainability, that have the intention of banning GMOs from being grown and cultivated on local farm land. 
Now is a time for consumers to see the support their health practitioners, farmers, and entrepreneurs are offering, and join them to promote a wholesome, transparent food system.

This is a new start. A hopeful one.

I believe that we are in a bit of a crisis. I believe that what is keeping us in this perpetual cycle of crisis isn't a lack of compassion or caring. I do believe people care. I believe it's a lack of accessible information. It is no one's fault. Misinformation is made more readily available than transparency nowadays, whether you're influenced by media or subconscious propaganda- and oftentimes, it's difficult to even tell the difference between the two.  

For that reason, I'm initiating this blog. A forum for those to share and promote education and change. Particularly within our food system. Because we are far from the sweet images of rolling hills speckled with happily strolling cows. And even further from the farmer with sweat on his brow and dirt under his fingernails. 

Truth is, the majority of your food is coming from people in lab coats, not overalls. And, those cows' hooves haven't touched a rolling hill in generations. 

There are options out there. Let's get together, find them, and make them accessible to everyone.