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: U.S. response to Arctic apples provides insights“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.

The American Medical Association, World Health Organization, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN are just a few reputable organizations who speak to the safety and desirability of approved biotech crops. However, one of the biggest challenges is simply getting consumers accurate information. The coverage of Arctic apples provides an example of this and there a few myths/concerns that there are simple explanations for:

Myth #1: Arctic apples are unsafe/untested

Arctic apples have been studied in field trials in Washington and New York State for over ten years and are one of the most researched and tested foods on the planet. The data demonstrates Arctic apples are just like any other apples until they are cut, bitten, or bruised and don’t brown. They contain no new proteins and are just as safe and healthful as other apples.

Myth #2: Since Arctic apples don’t brown, consumers can’t tell if they are old/damaged

Far from hiding when fruit is old or damaged, Arctic apples actually make it easier to tell when an apple has gone “bad”. Superficial damage that does not affect the quality of the fruit, such as minor finger bruising, won’t show. Arctic fruit looks fresh unless there is significant damage and then the apple probably shouldn’t be eaten. Enzymatic browning is quite different from the rotting that comes with decay, so Arctic fruit will decompose just the same as other apples.

Myth #3: Arctic apple will cross-pollinate with other orchards

This concern is addressed at length on the Arctic apple website. In summary, a) apple trees are not “weedy” so don’t spread on their own, b) bees stay very close to the hive when food is present, c) stewardship standards will further reduce this already low risk and d) in the unlikely scenario cross-pollination were to occur, only some of the resulting plant’s seeds would contain any Arctic material.

Myth #4: Arctic apples won’t be labeled

Fresh market Arctic apples will be clearly labeled as “Arctic” fruit and processed foods containing more than 5% Arctic apples will be identified as well. This is completely voluntary as OSF believes the transparency and choice it offers consumers is of great value.

While the first USDA public comment period is now over, a second one, this time for 30 days, will turn the spotlight on OSF again in the near future. From there, approval is expected in early 2013, at which time Arctic apples can be produced commercially.

In the meantime, Okanagan Specialty Fruits wishes to extend their appreciation to everyone who took the time to learn about Arctic apples and submitted thoughtful comments to the USDA. OSF has always emphasized the importance of transparency and open communication, whether through website, blog, social media, or even by responding to direct questions.

Whatever your personal thoughts on agriculture biotechnology, the more the debate is based on transparency and communication rather than emotion and fear, the better off all involved will be.