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.


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