By Shannon Lambie
Over the last few weeks, ‘Fed Up’ has been taste testing apple varieties with both Brooksbank elementary students and Queen Mary elementary students. During the taste testing everyone gets to discuss which qualities they like the best about each apple, which qualities they dislike, and then at the end we vote on our favourite apple (Honey Crisp remains the most popular variety!).
During the taste testing, Farmer Emily asks the children, ‘how many different kinds of apples do you think exist in the whole world?’ We usually get answers from the kids ranging from 4 to 200. However, in actuality, the answer is more than 7,500 varieties worldwide!
The diversity of apple varieties is indeed impressive, and it got me thinking about two brand new ‘made in BC’ varieties which have been in the news over this past year: the Arctic Apple and the Salish Apple.
I was wondering what it takes to produce a new apple variety, and what I found was, not all apples are created equally.
This is the first in a two part series, where I will compare the experiences of two diametrically opposed apple varieties. You might be thinking, could any two apples really be that different? Well the answer is yes. Ultimately, the only thing these two apples had in common was they were both developed here in BC and introduced to the public this year.
The first apple – the Arctic Apple – is genetically modified and was engineered by Okanagan Specialty Fruits a Canadian biotechnology company based out of Summerland, BC and headed up apple orchardist/biotechnologist Neal Carter.
What exactly is the Arctic Apple’s claim to fame though (aside from being, probably, the world’s first GMO apple)? Well scientists responsible for creating the Arctic Apple claim that it will not brown after it has been cut into pieces, due to the fact that they have ‘silenced certain genes in the apple responsible for the browning reaction’.
Some of you may be wondering why such a technology would be necessary, I was too. Well, a promotional headline, taken from the Arctic Apple website, explains “we all love apples! Until they turn brown, that is. Arctic® apples are everything you love about apples, without the “yuck” factor that you don’t. (Now if we could just get rid of the seeds!)”
Yes, that is right; nearly a decade and a half’s worth of science, money, and innovation (the arctic apple has been under development since 1997) has been invested in engineering an apple which simply doesn’t brown. I guess Neal Carter is not familiar with the technique of squeezing a bit of lemon juice onto apple slices to avoid oxidation. I’ve also learned that cutting apples with a ceramic knife avoids oxidation as well!
Below you can view the less than miraculous difference between a natural apple (on the left) and an Arctic Apple (on the right).
Carter clarifies that the idea came to him one evening, long ago. He was attending a party where the host had served cut up apples, and of course, they had oxidized. He claims the Arctic Apple will revolutionize the way people consume apples.
However, despite Carter’s revolutionary expectations for the Arctic Apple, as The Globe and Mail journalist Sunny Dhillon puts it, the public’s reception of the apple has been ‘chilly’. Indeed, the apple quickly garnered criticism in May of 2012, when it came up for approval with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The BC Fruit Growers’ Association has voiced concern that the introduction of the Arctic Apple could negatively impact both the existing organic and conventional apple growers in the Okanagan, due to the negative connotation associated with GMO production. Kirpal Boparai, president of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association, presses that this new apple could confuse potential consumers and ultimately persuade them to avoid purchasing any BC grown apples.
Allan Patton, a fruit grower in the Regional District of the Okanagan and Similkameen draws attention to the potential for cross pollination between the Arctic Apple and organic varieties. This, Patton explains, has the potential to undermine the entire organic apple production in the Okanagan and destroy countless livelihoods. Patton presses, “Whether you like GMOs or not, whether you believe in the science or not, this is the reality that’s facing us now. There are countries that will restrict us from sending our crops to them if we have GMO contaminated fruit, or even thought we had GMO contaminated fruit” (see entire article at: http://www.bclocalnews.com/news/158172985.html?mobile=true).
Beyond the grower’s very valid and troubling concerns, scholars and consumers have also raised issues regarding the genetically modified apple. Emily G. Adams, an extension educator for agriculture and natural resources at The Ohio State University, suggests that genetically altering food purely for aesthetic reasons may ‘cross the line’ (see entire article at: http://www.coshoctontribune.com/article/20121027/NEWS01/310270004).
Here at home in BC, momentum continues to build for the implementation of entirely GMO or GE (genetically engineered) free zones, with Richmond most recently joining the list (the list currently includes: Salt Spring Island, Denman Island Powell River, Rossland, Nelson, New Denver, and Kaslo). Advocates highlight that GE free zones will ensure seed sovereignty and seed control for local producers, and help build towards a more sustainable food future for BC.
Tony Beck from the Society for a GE Free BC states “There’s no room in our communities for crops like the proposed GM apple. We need to invest in organic farming rather than risk its future from GM contamination”. Lucy Sharratt, of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network adds, “The markets for iconic and economically important BC products could soon be destroyed if genetically modified organisms like GM apples and GM salmon are introduced.”
Indeed, across the board, the reception of the Arctic Apple has been negative and demonstrates a widespread dislike and perhaps distrust for GM produce. Faced with this reality, one might expect Carter to reconsider his expectations for the apple. Unfortunately, Carter remains committed to his project, and disappointed by the criticism. Carter exclaims, “The fact that they want to take technology and ban it for a province, a technology that saves lives, globally it’s going to feed the planet and ban it from our province, I think that’s incredibly naive, and ignorant and I just can’t fathom where these people are coming from.”
In the second part of this series, I will tell an entirely different story of an apple’s birth: that of the Salish.