Guest comment by Neal Carter
Neal Carter has worked around the globe as a bioresource engineer for ~30 years, and through this experience became convinced of the value of agricultural biotechnology. This led him to found Okanagan Specialty Fruits and the road to commercialization for their flagship product, nonbrowning Arctic® apples, has become a polarizing issue.
U.S. response to Arctic apples provides insights on biotech debate
By Neal Carter
Neal Carter “A great innovative product for the consumer, which cannot in the wildest imagination be less healthy than conventional apples” vs. “No genetically modified foods…EVER!!” The U.S. public comment period on Arctic apples came to a close on September 11, with the above comments providing telling examples of the polarized response that Okanagan Specialty Fruits’ (OSF) biotech-enhanced nonbrowning apple generated.
Crops produced through biotechnology have been widely consumed in the United States for over 15 years and around 70-80% of processed foods contain them, yet it remains an emotionally charged topic. Even though OSF uses apple genes in their transformation process and the fruit contains no new proteins (unlike many products on the market today), Arctic apples have become a lightning rod for the biotech debate.
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture opened up the 60-day comment period on July 13, 2012 Arctic apples were just one of twelve biotech crops whose petitions were simultaneously released for public review and comment. Two months later, its petition generated 1,939 comments, far more than any of the eleven other petitions. This includes petitions from Monsanto, the giant in the industry, but all four of their petitions combined generated just 1/4 as many comments as OSF’s single petition.
Since apples are seen as one of the most wholesome foods in existence, a more emotional response than canola or soybeans is predictable, and that’s exactly what occurred. Even so, a clear trend is evident when you look at the petition’s comments. The positive comments are largely from well-credentialed scientists and members of the agriculture or biotechnology industries who are very familiar with the science and safety of biotech-enhanced crops. The negative comments are largely based off fear of all biotechnology and incorrectly suggest that any genetically engineered food is dangerous.
With biotech foods being widespread for some time now, why is it that so many remain wary of them? It seems the answer is lack of information and understanding, and recent statistics support this theory. The 2012 results of the biennial survey “Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology & Sustainability” from the International Food Information Council found that just 10% of respondents know “a lot” about plant biotechnology and over a quarter (26%) know “nothing at all” (fairly consistent with numbers from previous years). It also appears that those who vehemently oppose biotech represent a small, but vocal, minority since unaided, just 2% of consumers said that biotechnology was a food safety concern and 0% said they were currently avoiding these foods.