Will Apples Continue to Keep the Doctor Away?

December 17th, 2010 | Simcha Weinstein | 1 Comment »

The old saying, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, has elevated the fruit to a mythic standing in the world of healthy foods. Many consider the apple to be one of our healthiest foods simply because of the endurance of this phrase. Apples, however, could take a huge image hit if Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), a British Columbian biotechnology company, has its way. The company is petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to approve a genetically-modified (GM) variety of apple that the company says does not brown after being sliced. The company licensed the technology from Australian researchers who have already used it in potatoes to eliminate the browning enzyme.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has considered about 100 petitions for genetically engineered or modified crops. Those that have drawn the most attention have been engineered to withstand certain weed killers, but among those the agency has approved are tomatoes altered to ripen more slowly—the first genetically modified crop approved in the U.S. in 1992—and plums that resist a specific virus. This is the first petition for apples. The approval process can take years, and it’s not clear the apples will be accepted even if they pass government inspection.

It will cost growers about $10,000 to $20,000 per acre to replant with these new apples. Typically sliced apples marketed as fresh are rinsed in a combination of calcium and ascorbic acid – vitamin C – to maintain freshness.

A very strange outcome of these GM apples is that it stays looking fresh for a very long time, even after it has technically gone bad. So if approved, suppliers and retailers will end up benefiting the most because the visual shelf life of this fruit is indefinite.

Genetically modified (GM) food is currently one of the most controversial practices within our agricultural system. I have written extensively about GM crops both on this blog and through our weekly newsletters. It’s important that everyone understands exactly what Genetic Modification is. It’s getting a lot of attention out there, but it’s vital that all of us who sell and promote organic foods are crystal clear about how the process works. Very simply put, genetic modification involves taking genes from one species and inserting them into another. For example, genes from an arctic flounder (which obviously are resistant to cold temperatures) may be spliced into a tomato to prevent frost damage, allowing yields later into the season. This type of modification is quite different from traditional breeding techniques. Traditional breeding typically occurs within the established boundaries of nature. For example, tomatoes may cross-pollinate with other tomatoes, but not with rice, or with flounder. Pigs will mate with other pigs, but not with cows. Genetic modification splices genes between unrelated species that would never crossbreed in nature. Natural reproduction or breeding can only occur between closely related forms of life. Even if you exclude the hard data and evidence, it just seems wrong. Here’s hoping that apples continue to keep the doctor away.