Mar 13, 2013 / 12:30 pm
A petition signed by over 5,500 BC residents is calling for the government to take action that would halt the commercial introduction of a genetically modified apple.
This technology has been harnessed and licensed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, a company based in Summerland who say they can produce a non-browning fruit, dubbed the Arctic Apple.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are both currently considering applications to allow the apple to be produced commercially – which poses a problem, says NDP opposition agriculture critic Lana Popham.
“The effect of this genetic modification is that it will make it harder to see bruises and discolouration – but those are important visual cues people use before decided to take a bit,” she says.
“It is irresponsible for this government to stand idly by awhile a single commercial interest risks the excellent reputation of the entire BC fruit industry.”
While Popham’s stance was not surprising to Okanagan Specialty Fruits and their President Neal Carter, the head of the seven-person company does admit this news comes as a disappointment.
“I guess it really reflects the challenges we face in educating and demystifying agriculture biotechnology so that more people can get on board and support this technology,” he says.
“It’s frustrating because the detractors from the technology and the Arctic Apples, they never even speak to us. They never give us the chance to talk to them directly, to educate them.”
Carter freely uses the term ‘genetically engineered’ and says the company has never tried to hide that fact. What Okanagan Specialty Fruits has done is they’ve found a way to turn off the enzyme that is already found in apples, causing the browning reaction. He says this in no way affects the taste or texture of whichever strain of apple they manipulate.
“If it’s a golden delicious then it looks like a golden, grows like a golden, tastes like a golden. Except for when it’s cut, sliced, bruised or bitten, then it doesn’t go brown.”
He does admit that while a fresh apple will not brown, Arctic apples will eventually rot just like a conventional apple. It can be a useful indicator to show consumers when an apple is old or decomposing, making it easier to determine the fruit's quality.
“The apple slices you see today are all treated with a chemical to stop the browning. And that chemical basically halts the enzymatic reaction, but creates off flavouring and makes the apple not taste like its natural flavour anymore. That’s where the biggest difference is.”
The feedback from apple suppliers and distributors has been encouraging and Carter says many companies were extremely excited about their product, including the fresh cut industry, food processors and the food service industry.
But he does worry about the consumers.
“There’s always the concern around the consumer acceptance component,” he says.
“We’ve done a lot of consumer work. We’ve done research and surveys and we feel comfortable that probably 80 per cent of the population will be excited about this product.”
As for this most recent criticism of their company, Carter says they are worried about the negative press.
“We’ve always known it is a controversial product – basically harnessing a lot of innovation and new science and technology into the product.”
He illustrates this divide by pointing out whenever something new is introduced into the world there is always a component of society or the marketplace that is resistant.
“The challenge is to engage people into a more of an intellectual debate instead of the philosophical debate,” he says.
“There are clear demonstrations of benefit both to the environment and returns to the grower and why shouldn’t we be looking at this in other agriculture sectors. I think it only makes sense to use the best tools as we move forward.”
The Arctic Apple is not yet available for sale and is still in the regulation process. Okanagan Specialty Fruits anticipates getting approval in the US sometime this summer, but it will be a few years before a non-browning apple is seen on the store shelves as trees need to be planted before the fruit can be produced.
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