by Mark Verdecia
The development of agriculture is arguably the most important milestone in our shared human history. Our ancestors’ transition from a nomadic life to an agrarian society was the first step, for better or for worse, towards the world we live in today. It is interesting to think that all the features of what we consider the modern world, everything from antibiotics to YouTube, were all made possible by the spontaneous and quite random appearance of a wild grass in the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean. The current debate about whether to genetically manipulate our food is somewhat ironic given that it was a random series of genetic events that created cereal grain, today grown worldwide as wheat. In fact, it was this genetic accident that created the farmer and, indirectly us, in the first place, and not the other way around.
How wheat became a plant capable of sustaining human settlements is a series of serendipitous events elegantly described by mathematician and biologist Jacob Bronowski in the documentary series, “The Ascent of Man” (BBC, 1973). I highly recommend watching the series for yourself, but to quote Bronowski, “…by some genetic accident wild wheat crossed with a goat grass and formed a fertile hybrid.” This event combined the 14 chromosomes of each plant into one progeny with 28 chromosomes, an amazing accomplishment for even the most skilled plant geneticist. The resulting hybrid, emmer, still exists today. This diploid plant, commonly referred to as farro, is revered for its nutty flavor and risotto-like texture in Italy, for example.
In the supplementary video Bronowski continues the tale of wheat. “This event alone was not sufficient because a hulled wheat like emmer spreads naturally in the wind due to the way its seeds are attached to the husks. This favors the propagation of the plant but is not ideal for harvesting. A second and even less probable event had to occur in which emmer crossed with a different goat grass to create a hybrid with 42 chromosomes, a tetraploid progeny.” This new hybrid plant should have been sterile and subsequently destined for the genetic waste bin. However, a separate random mutation conferred the gift of fertility and the result was bread wheat with grains that did not shatter and propagate in the wind but instead fell in place. Although fecund, this new wheat lacked the ability to disperse its seeds and so was at a major disadvantage compared to other wild grasses. Bread wheat was still destined to become just one more failed evolutionary experiment, until humans stepped in.
From our perspective, the random appearance of wheat seems like a lucky break in a long chain of such events that allowed our species to flourish. However, a case can be made that it was wheat that caught a lucky break. As Bronowski points out; from the wheat’s point of view we exist to propagate it not the other way around. Other authors, such as Michael Pollan, have made the same convincing argument for this view of our relationship to nature. It would be hard to argue against them given the data. There are approximately 37 billion acres of land on our planet, of which 1 billion or 2.7% was used for growing wheat in 2013. The majority of us sit on somewhere between 1.5 to 3% of that land mass at a significantly lower density. We are barely keeping up with wheat for land dominance. To add insult to injury, 98% of arable land on the planet is currently being used to grow the world’s three main crops, which includes wheat. All those crops need water to grow and as a consequence more people on our planet have a harder time getting water than wheat does.
The importance of certain crops, such as wheat, corn, and rice, in our evolution is hard to argue against. More controversial is the role that genetic modification of our crops, both accidental and purposeful, continues to play in our food systems. The historical record is unambiguous. As soon as humans planted their first crops over 10,000 years ago, they began figuring out ways to make better varieties. By the time Gregor Mendel began unraveling trait inheritance in his monastic garden, farmers had already mastered the art of breeding. Every major crop that exists today has been genetically altered to grow faster, last longer, and look and taste better. Human evolution is inextricably interwoven with the genetic alteration of the plants and animals that fueled the rise of our societies.
Mendel’s work, combined with Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection unveiled the machinery that was already being manipulated by breeding practices hundreds of years old. The revolution in molecular biology in the last half of the 20th century translated this new found knowledge into applications that exponentially increased our options for what is possible. Like most technological revolutions however, our ability to understand the implications of what we can do lags behind our ability to understand what we should do. It is not unexpected that as a society we are grappling with what role we should play, if any, in continuing to genetically modify the organisms on which we depend.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines genetically modified (GM) foods as “foods derived from organisms whose genetic material has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.” Clearly, this definition makes no distinction between genetic engineering and traditional breeding. This is not particularly problematic since both exert their effects by manipulating genetic information for the expressed intent of changing a phenotypic trait of the organism.
The WHO’s definition may be overly broad, but the definition given by anti-GMO organizations, such as the Non-GMO Project are arbitrarily narrow. They define GMOs “as living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering.” The use of “artificially manipulated” evokes a Faustian bargain on par with Shelley’s Frankenstein where science and ethics have parted ways. This turn of phrase is likely meant to contrast genetic engineering from a set of environmental circumstances created by chance, not intent, that result in reproductive success of one organism over another. Artificial selection then, whether accomplished as part of breeding or genetic engineering, is reproductive success imposed by human desires. The Anti-GMO definition still fails to create any meaningful distinction between the two. Even attempting to define the act by the place in which it may or may not occur, the laboratory in this case, does not exclude traditional breeding practices. As defined by any reference guide, a laboratory is “a place providing opportunity for experimentation, observation, or practice in a field of study,” and countless forms of breeding take place in some such setting.
Nobel laureate (Peace, 1970) Norman Borlaug describes genetic engineering of crops best as, “not some kind of witchcraft; rather, it is the progressive harnessing of the forces of nature to the benefit of feeding the human race.” He also states, “Genetic engineering is not a replacement of conventional breeding but rather a complementary research tool to identify desirable genes from remotely related taxonomic groups and transfer these genes more quickly and precisely into high-yield, high-quality crop varieties.” Borlaug’s description gets to the heart of the any real distinction between GM and breeding: time.
And Borlaug, more than anyone else would know. He is widely considered the father of the “Green Revolution” and his work in Mexico breeding disease resistant wheat is legendary. Joel Bourne, in his book “The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World”, deftly describes Borlaug’s impact.
In 1965, Mexico harvested 2.5 million tons of wheat – a 10-fold increase since Borlaug’s arrival two decades earlier. For those who don’t wrest their living from the land, the significance of this feat is hard to appreciate. But consider this. It took a thousand years for farmers to increase yields from half a metric ton per hectare to 2 metric tons per hectare. Thanks to Borlaug and colleagues, it took only 40 years to increase those 2 tons to 6.
The Green Revolution did indeed bring us large quantities of food that had never been seen before. There are no free lunches in nature however. The costs have been enormous. Overuse of fertilizers and pesticides have spoiled previously pristine water tables, large swaths of monoculture have driven out other varieties that actually provide the natural genetic diversity needed to protect against pests. Possibly the biggest sin of all is that much of our production doesn’t go to feed people at all. A large percentage of our crops become feedstock or biofuel.
This overproduction also destabilizes developing nations. Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, is a prime example. Free trade policies promoted by then President Bill Clinton forced down tariff barriers in Haiti so that corporate rice farmers in Arkansas could flood the Haitian market with their federally subsidized rice. The result was the destruction of the Haitian farmer. The fact the country was no longer self-sustaining became apparent to the rest of the world after the Haitian earthquake. The Green Revolution was never intended for this purpose. On the contrary, the dream of the revolutionaries was that increased productive capacity would make countries like Haiti more self-sufficient. They could not foresee that a combination of large industrial farming in the U.S. combined with government subsidy would create a perfect storm for the exact opposite effect.
Breeding moves a lot faster than natural selection and genetic modification is breeding “turned up to eleven”. This fact should definitely make us pause and think, given the repercussions of the Green Revolution. It actually takes more time to decide whether a GMO should have been made than it does to make it. This is evident in the raging debates over the ethics of genetic engineering and the knee-jerk responses to the idea of GMOs. A healthy skepticism of these products is a good thing. In fact, it’s necessary. If all that GMOs are good for is to bolster our current agriculture systems then the visceral reaction that many people have to them is warranted. The debate should be about how we can and should use technologies to create systems that produce nutritious foods using sustainable methods.
Unfortunately, the GMO debate is usually centered on the science behind GMO rather than on policies on how to implement them. For example, those against GMOs argue that the ability to insert genes into an organism is a new and radical invention. The inference is that eating GMOs can make you sick. This strategy works great for getting the average consumer to stay away from GMOs, but fails on the level of policy, which the most important of the two. Why does it fail at the level of making policy or business decisions? To put it bluntly; the people who make those decision know better.
The science behind GMOs is sound. The technologies for inserting foreign genes into organisms are based on the same mechanisms that nature uses to create novel combinations of traits. The act of transferring genes between organisms, known as horizontal gene transfer, is a natural phenomenon as old as evolution itself. Every species on this planet, including our own, has a genome riddled with foreign genes from viruses, bacteria and even eukaryotes. The possibility of a fortuitous or problematic gene transfer between two organisms always exists. That probability is extremely low but given enough time it will happen.
This is not to disregard the concerns of the anti-GMO groups. There are serious implications to engineering new organisms and companies like Monsanto have played fast and loose with the technology. There are many unanswered questions surrounding the risks posed by Roundup ready soy, canola, alfalfa, cotton, and sorghum and to a much lesser extent, Bt-corn. But this isn’t a problem with GMOs, this is a problem with Monsanto’s corporate culture and its undue influence in Washington allows it to shape policy. Unfortunately, companies like Monsanto have been the face of GMOs for far too long. This is changing however, as other companies develop and market GMOs. For example, let’s consider the Canadian company Okanagan Specialty Fruit, which makes a genetically modified apple that was recently approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for sale in the U.S.
Do you like apples? How do you like them apples?
Okanagan’s Arctic® apple was created to address the problem of “browning”, a condition in which crisp pearl colored flesh becomes brown and mushy. Apples turn brown when the phenolic compounds within their flesh begin to react with oxygen. This oxidation occurs naturally but is dramatically accelerated by a group of enzymes known as polyphenol oxidases or PPOs. In the intact apple, PPOs are compartmentalized. When apples are handled, cut or bitten into, the cells at the site of injury rupture releasing both the polyphenols and the PPOs into the spaces between the undamaged cells. Brown and mushy apples are the end result.
There are over 5 million tons of apples produced in the United States every year. These apples need to be harvested, which means they need to be handled. This inevitably results in a lot of damaged and browning apples. It is estimated that as much as 100 million bushels of apples are lost in any given year. Apples loss is no small cull either. This represents over 35% of all avoidable fruit waste generated annually., Surprisingly, a lot of the loss at harvest is actually edible fruit that because of bruising does not meet the attributes specified in contracts with processors. Bad apples are only the tip of iceberg. As reported in the Washington Post (Plumber, 2012), 40% of all the food produced in United States goes uneaten at a cost of $165 billion.,,
Culled apples are not just an economic issue. In a recent article in Modern Farmer, Jesse Hirsch and Reyhan Harmanci, describe the problem concisely. They write that, “of the millions of tons that we waste in America each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 96% ends up in landfills. And currently, food waste is the number one material taking up landfill space, more than paper or plastic. This produces methane gas, one of the most harmful atmospheric pollutants.” Since Arctic® apples don’t brown from normal handling they are less likely to end up in a landfill. If this ends up being the only benefit of Arctic apples they could potentially lessen the environmental impact of landfill by millions of tons of waste while lowering the costs at every link in the apple supply chain.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Bad apples are not just bad for the environment. Oxidation of polyphenols in our apples also represents a nutritional problem. These secondary metabolites protect plants from ultraviolet light and pathogens and so it’s not surprising that mounting epidemiological studies and meta-analyses support a protective role for polyphenols in human health as well. The literature is rich with reports demonstrating that a diet rich in polyphenols reduces the risk of several cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases.,
The old saying, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” may be truer than we realize. Apples are an extremely rich source of polyphenols with each variety having a distinct compositional spectrum. On average, concentrations vary from 0.1 to 5 grams of total polyphenols per kilogram but can reach as high as 10 grams per kilogram in certain varieties of cider apples., Among the polyphenols are groups of compounds known as flavanols and phenolic acids. There is some evidence that flavanols such as quercetin, kaempferol, and myricetin decrease the risk of pancreatic cancer. Chlorogenic acid, a phenolic acid, has been shown to exert anticarcinogenic effects in A549 human cancer cells., In addition to these specific protective effect, polyphenols are thought to promote the expression of carcinogen destroying enzymes called cytochrome P450s in our livers.
How polyphenols do all this is not exactly known. It is hypothesized that their phenolic groups act as electron acceptors leading to the formation of relatively stable phenoxyl radicals. This antioxidant effect could play a significant role in countering the “oxygen paradox”, the fact that oxygen is both necessary for, yet deleterious to our cellular function. Unfortunately, once polyphenols become oxidized, as occurs during browning in apples, they lose their protective effects. Bruised and browned apples simply don’t have as many polyphenols as pristine apples. This may explain our visceral and instinctive response against eating brown apples. Not only do brown apples taste awful, but they are devoid of nutrition and a great substrate for pathogens.
Apple of my RNAi
The technology behind the Arctic apples is called RNA interference (RNAi), a fundamental molecular process universally shared by all eukaryotes. The discovery of this cellular system was no small feat and the work to unravel these mechanisms spanned much of the 1980s and 1990s. The importance of this work was acknowledged in 2006 with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Andrew Fire and Craig C. Mello, the main protagonists involved in the discovery.
RNAi is used by cells to regulate gene expression. They do this by transcribing RNA fragments, known as micro RNAs (miRNA) that target messenger RNA (mRNA) for degradation. The mRNA is the key, because it this molecule, not the DNA, that gets translated by the cell into the proteins that carry out all relevant functions. However, a cell doesn’t need to express every protein all the time. Not only is it a waste of precious energy, but expressing two proteins at the same time that normally don’t co-exist can have unintended consequences. In fact, many cancers are the product of improper gene expression, which results in the production of proteins that should not present.
Plants use miRNAs to regulate entire networks of genes that control all the stages of development. The Arctic apple was created by inserting a fragment of DNA into an apple that gets transcribed into four separate miRNAs. These miRNAs specifically hybridize with the mRNA encoding four polyphenol oxidases that are made by the apple’s cells. In contrast to popular sentiment, the inserted piece of DNA is not a foreign gene. The sequence encoded in the DNA fragment is complementary to endogenous genes within the apple and is non-coding. So even if more the miRNAs were created than there were mRNA for it to bind to, it could not produce any protein. This is an important distinction because it is proteins, and not nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) that act as allergens and illicit inflammatory responses. Additionally, RNA is a naturally occurring chemical in all foods, they are highly unstable outside of the cellular environment and are quickly degraded by the multitude or RNAses that exist on our skin, and in our mouths and digestive tracts.
Not surprisingly, Arctic apples have not gone over well with many groups including, apple growers, packers and shippers, industry organizations, and national and local Anti-GMO organizations such as the Non-GMO Project, the Institute for Responsible Technology and GMO Free USA. All were quick to question or criticize the FDA when the approval was announced. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Douglas Rowley, the general manager of Mountainland Apples Inc., a Utah company that packs and ships apples, said, “The U.S. produces millions of bushels of apples. Now all of a sudden, we want to throw in one that we just make up. I just don’t agree with it.” These sentiments were echoed by The U.S. Apple Association, which questions whether there is a real need for Arctic apples. Spokeswoman Wendy Brannen said, “Everything with this particular apple is so new.”
Anti-GMOs warn of potential environmental, health, and economic risks associated with the apples and raise concerns that they won’t be labeled as GMOs, citing consumer right-to-know laws. These advocacy groups have called on fastfood restaurants, groceries stores and food processors to not sell or use the Arctic apples. In an effort to demonstrate their power to drive the industry on this issue, the anti-GMO group, Friends of the Earth, published letters from the world’s largest restaurant chain McDonald’s, and leading baby food manufacturer Gerber confirming that they do not plan to sell or use the Arctic apple.
The discussion of what kind of apple is a natural or traditional apple is very misleading. In truth, the apple didn’t become the fruit that we know today until the 20th century. It was in the early part of the 1900’s that growers, in an effort to expand their market outside of cider, began cloning the sweetest apples by grafting them. In an ironic twist, these clones were marketed as the “ultimate health food” guaranteed to “keep the doctor away.” After a few decades only a handful of apples were being produced in expansive monoculture operations. Another irony is that because these clones lack genetic diversity they have become increasingly vulnerable to insects, bacteria and viruses. Today, traditional apple growers are some of the biggest consumers of pesticides.
Don’t tread on me
Lisa Archer, director of the Food & Technology Program at Friends of the Earth (FOE) said, “McDonald’s and Gerber are wise to distance themselves from the Arctic apple. They understand their customers, particularly parents, are leery of unlabeled, poorly studied genetically engineered foods.” She goes on the claim, “This is further proof that the market is rejecting GMOs.” Although the letters only confirm standing policies for both companies, Archer’s assessment of the industry sentiment is appropriate. The fact the both McDonald’s and Gerber felt compelled to address the issue prior to any ruling by the FDA suggests that the Arctic apple faces an uphill battle before gaining industry acceptance.
Where is a GMO to go when even approval by the FDA is not sufficient to allay public fears? The anti-GMO critics argue that the process is not thorough enough and that it relies too heavily on the data provided by the company whose product is under review. Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest Public echoes the standard belief that the “GMO approval process is badly flawed.” He calls for Congress to “pass legislation that requires new biotech crops to undergo a rigorous and mandatory approval process before foods made from those crops reach the marketplace,” Jaffe says. They are convinced that any GMO food is dangerous and if it passes regulatory approval then there must be something wrong with the FDA’s regulatory process. The specific criticisms centers on the fact that the FDA communicated with Okanagan and allowed it to carry out the experiments and provide the data used to prove its products are safe.
These criticism demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how the FDA, and the majority of our regulatory agencies, actually function. These agencies are not tasked with carrying out research to independently verify claims. That responsibility lies with the companies looking to market new products. This is true for GM foods, medical devices and pharmaceuticals. For example, pharmaceutical companies seeking approval for a new drug must test it themselves, at a cost exceeding $1 billion, and then submit evidence that their drug is safe and effective to the FDA. Upon receiving an application the FDA assembles a team of physicians, statisticians, chemists, pharmacologists, and other scientists to review the data. That entire process can take over ten years and there is a lot of communication between the FDA and the company during that time. This is unavoidable because the role of the FDA’s review team is to find problems and areas of ambiguity within the application. The FDA must mediate this process by bringing those concerns and questions to the company so that they can be addressed. Approval only occurs when all of the reviewer’s questions are adequately addressed
GMOs such as the Arctic apple, are assessed in much the same way. In announcing the approval, Dennis Keefe, director of the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety said, “As part of its consultation process, Okanagan and Simplot submitted to the FDA a summary of their safety and nutritional assessments…. The consultation process includes a review of information provided by a company about the nature of the molecular changes and the nutritional composition of the food compared to traditionally bred varieties.”
Foods derived from genetically engineered plants must meet the same standards, including safety standards, as foods derived from traditional plant breeding methods. The company must identify what new trait is conferred by the genetic modification and assess “whether any new material that a person consumed in food made from the genetically engineered plants could be toxic or allergenic.” They also must compare the “levels of nutrients in the new genetically engineered plant to traditionally bred plants.” When the FDA receives an application it assembles a Biotechnology Evaluation Team of genetic engineers, toxicologist, chemists and nutritionists on a “case-by-case” basis to ensure “that food safety issues are resolved prior to commercial distribution.” Based on the initial application date and the date of the announcement, this process took almost five years for Arctic apples.
Given many of the high profile cases questioning the veracity of drug company studies, it is fair to raise concerns about “cherry-picked” or falsified data. There are several examples of clinician falsifying data and committing other unethical acts during clinical trials for drug approval. Any process where the incentives to commit fraud exist is vulnerable to data manipulation, misrepresentation or falsification. GM foods like Arctic apples represent significant revenue potential for Okanagan. There is no evidence to suggest that Okanagan engaged in any unethical activity, however, economic incentives can create pressure to ensure regulatory approval.
To counter those incentives the FDA, under the authority given to it by section 355(i) of the Federal Drug and Cosmetics Act (FDCA), has in the past aggressively pursued criminal charges against scientists over falsification of clinical data in a drug studies. In 2011, a physician and a clinical research coordinator were indicted on charges of falsifying study data in a clinical drug trial they were paid to conduct. The indicted physician and coordinator each face 30 years in federal prison and over $500,000 in fines. The FDA can also seeks criminal liability against corporate officers under the Park Doctrine, which states that the government can bring misdemeanor charges against company officials for violating the FDCA. Still the FDA currently lacks significant legal authority to pursue criminal charges under the FDCA. It must rely on legal precedents and extrinsic charges such as mail fraud to indict and convict violators. Increasing criminal and financial penalties and giving the FDA more legal authority to pursue offenders could go a long way to stifling criticism of the agency.
“Weird science, plastic tubes and pots and pans, bits and pieces and magic from the hand.”
Another effective strategy employed by the anti-GMO movement is to oversimplify and misrepresent the science. For example, the phrase “botox apples” is frequently used by these groups to promote the claim that Arctic Apple were “not designed for increased nutritional value, but for purely cosmetic purposes.” Additionally, groups like FOE describe the science used to create Arctic apples as “virtually untested experimental technique called RNA interference which many scientists are concerned may have negative unintended impacts on human health and the environment.”
It is true that RNAi is relatively new as applied to GMOs. However, the science and the scientific techniques being used are not. RNA interference is as old as the first eukaryotes and each of our cells is carrying out RNA interference at this very moment. Various studies demonstrate that RNAi is a reliable molecular tool that offers great promise for a variety of applications. That major challenge of RNAi based controls is in identifying potential targets. In non-GMO apples, PPO expression is not normally regulated by RNA interference. Asking whether or not it’s a good idea to delete polyphenol oxidases from apples is a valid question. Insinuating that RNA interference in an apple poses a health risk to a consumer is misleading. They may seem like trivial distinction but it prevents a dialogue on the real issues. Criticism against Arctic apples should focus on the missing polyphenol oxidases not random molecules of RNA. For example, there are non-GMO apple varieties that have low levels of these enzymes. What effect, if any do these apples have on human health?
Just a spritz
The anti-GMO groups also like to point to the pre-sliced apple market which prevents browning without genetic engineering by applying lemon juice to the apple flesh. In fact, this is the industry standard practice for preventing sliced apples from browning. The active non-browning ingredient in lemon juice, vitamin C, is combined with a formulation of calcium salts to create NatureSeal, which is coated on every pre-sliced apple in the U.S. prior to packaging. Once dipped or sprayed, the apple slices have a 21-day shelf-life without browning or losing their crispness. One downside of this practice is that this salt solution creates a partition between the apples’ flesh and atmospheric oxygen. Most microbiologists would point out that a sugar rich substrate devoid of oxygen is prime real estate for facultative anaerobes such as Listeria monocytogenesis. This pathogen is no joke. Listeria infection causes death in 25% of cases and is particularly aggressive in children and the elderly, the two groups most likely to consume pre-sliced apples.
This is a real concern given that recently Crunch Pak issued a nationwide recall of more than 5,400 cases of its Crunch Pak Apple Slices due to possible Listeria contamination. An actual recent Listeria outbreak, involving products from Happy Apples, between October 2014 and January 2015 led to the deaths of 7 people. During that incident 35 people across 12 states became sick from eating Listeria contaminated apples. Not surprisingly the median age of the victims was over 60, but with several children also falling sick.
Whether a consumer chooses to eat Arctic apples or NatureSeal sprayed slices should be based on an assessment of the real risks associated with both products. Arctic apples do not create an impermeable membrane around the apple to protect it from oxygen therefore it is less likely to carry Listeria. This is not to say that Arctic apples are completely safe from any and all pathogens. It could be argued that browning may be nature’s way of warning us not to eat that apple. When an apple gets handled, its cells get ruptured inviting colonization by microbes already present on the surface of the fruit or in the air. As they feed on the fruit’s exposed innards, the cells multiply rapidly. It’s possible for damaged fruit to grow some of the more notorious varieties of food-borne pathogens, such as salmonella or E. coli. Browning tells a potential consumer that the apple’s cells have been disrupted, and the intensity and spread of the color change is an indication of how long ago that event happened. Arctic apples can’t provide that warning signal after bruising occurs even though the cells in Arctic apples rupture the same as that of any other apples. It remains to be seen if this is an actual concern or whether the risk is overstated.
This leads to a very valid point made by anti-GMO groups around the issue of labeling. Okanagan is against labeling of its product as GMO because it fears the label will prevent its acceptance into the market. However, consumers have a right to information regarding their foods so that they can make informed decisions about what they eat. This could be particularly important for an issue regarding the potential of Arctic apples to hide the presence of pathogenic bacteria.
So, does a GMO apple address the question I posed earlier about how to use technologies to disrupt rather than support the status quo? It seems to do more of the latter than the former but the shift is still towards reducing the overall waste in the system. Will Arctic apples flood a developing market and destroy the local industry? That is a question of policy rather than technology. The Arctic apple can address some big problems in the industry but it also has the potential to create its own unique set of issues. It really depends on how we choose to use it.
Ironically, GMOs like the Arctic apple are bringing us back to where GMOs began in the first place. It was way back in 1994 that the FDA approved the first GMO for human consumption, the Flavr Savr tomato developed by Calgene. Unlike the GMOs the followed later in that decade, the Flavr Savr was created to extend shelf life and quality, not for pest control in the field. Prior to the Flavr Savr, farmers would pick and ship tomatoes green and then spray them with a gas to ripen them. Calgene seemed to be going about it the right way. In a retro report for the New York Times in 2013, Michael Winerip writes, “To build public confidence, Calgene officials were open about the process. They voluntarily sought government approval, labeled the engineered tomatoes clearly and provided an 800 number for people with questions.” But Calgene was never able to get itself profitable and production ceased after only a few years. Monsanto acquired the company and shelved the technology. A credible argument can be made that Calgene’s business failures and Monsanto’s rise as the standard bearer of all things GMO were major setbacks for the technology’s acceptance by the consumer.
The fact is that Okanagan is attempting to provide a solution to an important issue. Browning of apples leads to significant waste that harms our environment, produces massive economic losses, and decreases the nutritional value of a highly consumed item. By protecting the nutritional content during the circuitous route taken by most of our food before it ends up on our tables, Arctic apples could reduce land fill waste by millions of tons, reduce costs by billions and positively affect human health. That’s an impressive list of accomplishments for one fruit.
This shift back towards quality and nutrition is a good thing. And I would argue that the anti-GMO movement and its response to the GMO crops that were thrust on farmers in the late 1990’s is largely responsible for this. Unfortunately, anti-GMO has become a reactionary response to genetic engineering rather than a thoughtful player helping to shape the future of our food systems. By doing so, they threaten to make themselves irrelevant in the debate. A weak or absent anti-GMO movement would be detrimental to everyone. Technologies such as GMOs need engaged citizens pushing back on it so that it is forced to address important problems that really affect our societies rather than just being used to increase someone’s bottom line. In the end this all of this will depend on how successful products like the Arctic apple turn out to be and given the mistakes of the past, this new crop of GMOs still has a long way to go to before it becomes as common on our tables as all those other rotting pieces of fruit.
No one would disagree with that fact that feeding the population without further harming the Earth presents one of the greatest challenges we face. To provide food for the population this century’s farmers will need to grow more food in the next seventy-five years than has been produced in all of human history. For the last ten thousand years that meant farming more land, however that no longer is a viable option. The questions of who will produces our food, how will they produce it, and who owns our food are relevant.
Most farmers stopped growing from seed long before genetic engineering, but it was out of a choice based on productivity and economic concerns focused on consumer needs, not out of fear of violating property rights of an entity significantly upstream in the food supply chain. This threatens to become a particularly problematic property rights issue. It isn’t necessarily easy to graft apple trees and maintain orchards, but GM apples are just the first of many GM foods that will make their way into our lives. The second crop already approved by the FDA is a genetically modified potato that produces less acrylamide when fried. Almost any individual can plant a potato.
In many way the coming fight will resemble the property rights debate that occurred in the early 2000’s when the music and movie industries attempted to block the digital sharing technologies that became prevalent at the time. Consumers argued that they owned the music by purchasing it and were free to share it with whomever they wanted to. The music and movie industries argued that the consumers had only purchased some rights but not a distribution right. This had never been an issue before because prior to digital sharing there was no way to swap digital content on a massive enough scale to threaten the industries bottom line. The GMO property rights fight will essentially ask the same questions of ownership. In this case however, the technology to use and share the property has been around for thousands of years. A farmer plants a seed, it grows, bears seeds that spread via natural processes.
This could become the modern version of the Heinz dilemma, proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg in his Essays on Moral Development (1981) to examine the conflict between two rights: property and life. The narrative is contrived but the ethical question posed here is very real. Which of the two rights has priority? For many, it’s instinctive to claim that the right to life has priority until the city proposes to build a homeless shelter down the street from their home. The dilemma arises because both rights are frequently perceived to be moral rights, especially in the wisdom traditions of Western and capitalist democracies.
Drug companies have largely circumvented this issue by making public promises to offer drugs to anyone who doesn’t have insurance or whose insurance won’t pay. That seems an unlikely solution for GM food companies given the current levels of poverty and the minimal support provided by welfare programs. The very real possibility exists that firms that have invested in the development of genetically modified varieties could affect access to food through enforcement of intellectual property rights. The alternative is that GM food companies could become massive instruments for wealth redistribution, in which those who can afford food subsidize feeding the poor. This latter scenario may not be such a bad idea but it remains to be seen if a private industry can function with that model.
Blindness from lack of dietary vitamin A is a problem in many developing countries. The Rockefeller Foundation has estimated that 400 million people worldwide were negatively affected by a lack of the vitamin. So they teamed up with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and in 2000 developed a rice seed with vitamin A and beta-carotene from carrots.
Because golden rice was created by the foundation, a nonprofit organization, the seed is open-source and available to everyone without cost. This is notable because most biotechnology is lucrative, and agricultural science companies like Monsanto and Cargill make a lot of money off their patented seeds. That’s another big criticism of GM foods: that they take something from the earth and turn it into intellectual property. The golden rice seed is an example of how that can be avoided.
Lastly, there is the issue that GM is currently used to support unsustainable agricultural practices such as monoculture. I would argue that GMOs are moving in the right direction with a focus on nutritional content rather than pest control, however, the focus on monoculture threatens to sideline the technology as our cities move away from traditional farming. Indian agricultural pioneer M. S. Swaminathan says it best when he calls for “an evergreen revolution” that combines the most advanced science with a clear focus on sustaining the environment to feed the population of the 21st century.
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