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Growers oppose GMO apple

James Hanna sinks his teeth into a crisp Ambrosia, one of the apple varieties grown at Hannah & Hannah Orchards. - Lachlan Labere/Observer
James Hanna sinks his teeth into a crisp Ambrosia, one of the apple varieties grown at Hannah & Hannah Orchards.
— image credit: Lachlan Labere/Observer

Some see it as a rotten idea fit for the compost; proponents think it deserves to be polished and marketed.

Judgments are strong when it comes to genetically modified apples.

The non-browning Arctic apple was created by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, an agriculture biotechnology company based in Summerland.

The apple is currently awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with a decision from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency expected to follow.

James Hanna, owner of Hanna & Hanna Orchards in Salmon Arm, doesn’t mince words about the plan.

“I think it’s ridiculous. We don’t need GMO apples, that’s for sure. We already have apples out there that don’t go brown, there’s no need for getting into this GMO stuff. We’ve got a world-renowned breeding program and the ability to develop another non-browning apple with existing varieties, without having to do it with a GMO product.”

He notes that Ambrosias and Galas, for instance, are varieties that brown very little.

Neal Carter, the founder and president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, responded via email to questions about the apple.

Carter said he settled on the name Arctic apple, because, “like the snow-driven landscape for which they are named, the flesh of Arctic apples remains pristine and unspoiled.”

While there are “low-browning” varieties of apples in existence, he said, only Arctic apples are non-browning.

“Another advantage of having a biotech solution for browning is that we can make any variety non-browning, including ones that are already popular. So, rather than having to spend years (possibly decades) trying to develop a single new non-browning variety with no guarantee of success, we have Arctic Granny, Arctic Golden and many other favourites on the way.”

The company’s website also lists plans for GMO cherries, pears and peaches.

While opponents say that GMO foods have only been on the market since 1996 so their effects can’t be adequately tested, Carter says biotechnology is relatively new, but that doesn’t mean its effects are unknown.

“Unlike conventional breeding, biotechnology is an incredibly precise technology that allows us to make targeted changes that are specific to a single trait. As an example, we are now able to use DNA sequencing to identify all 750 million base pairs of our Arctic apples. This clearly shows us that we’ve made precisely the change we meant to without making any other unintentional alterations.”

Regarding bans that have been placed on GMO products in different parts of the world, Carter says they’re based on public confusion, not evidence. He said the track record of biotech foods speaks for itself.

“All the leading global science and health organizations speak to their safety and benefits.”

Carter says the goal in creating the non-browning apple is to boost apple consumption while improving the apple industry’s bottom line.

“The food service industry is where consumers spend half of their food dollars, yet very few apples are sold there. Non-browning apples can open up this market by lowering production and processing costs of cut and dried fruit, offering consumers greater convenience, and reducing the number of apples that are wasted throughout the supply chain.”

Hanna, however, sees GMO apples having a negative effect on the industry.

“It’s hard enough to market apples as it is, without adding strikes to the fruit in the beginning. Anybody who is into marketing in the industry knows that. It’s hard to introduce new varieties – it takes years,” he said, adding it doesn’t make economic sense to him to try to introduce a controversial apple.

Hanna thinks growers will take a stand by not planting it.

“I’m not going to plant it and probably most growers in the valley won’t plant it. What’s the point?”

Allan Peterson of Peterson Bros. Orchards in Salmon Arm said he doesn’t expect the genetically modified apple will go over well.

“I think the impression of it is, it won’t be viable. It’s not something I’d jump at by any means. There are already apples that do that (don’t brown) naturally.”

Fred Steele is president of the BC Fruit Growers Association. He says the association is on record as being opposed to the GMO apple, but said there’s not much it can do until the CFIA makes a decision.

“Why risk an entire economy… to get an apple that doesn’t brown in a salad or a lunch box?” he asks, noting he’s seen a Gala apple last for three hours without browning. He questions whether a consumer would want to keep the rest of a salad for longer than three hours anyway.

He also said GMO fruit could potentially create contamination problems for the organic industry, which must be GMO-free.

Last week the Burnaby-based Health Action Network Society announced that 20 stores and fruit stands have stated they would not be selling the Arctic apple because of health concerns if it is approved.

Hanna reiterates that he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to risk consumer confidence in the safety of B.C. apples.

 

“I’m really quite proud of the B.C. fruit industry that we’re responsible and we don’t have that genetic modification going on. Consumers can be very confident they get safe B.C. fruit when they eat your product – and why would you destroy that?”

 

 

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