Commentary: Biting the apple that feeds you

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With so much negative rhetoric and media coverage of biotechnology as it has been applied to food production—Round-up Ready commodity crops that (allegedly) encourage herbicide use, Frankenfood fears about ‘foreign proteins’ in GM foods—it would seem to be a no-brainer for industry to lead the cheering when genetic engineering actually develops a benign yet consumer-friendly food that offers benefits to people, not producers.

Not if you’re the U.S. Apple Association (USApple), the trade group representing the nation’s apple growers.

When a company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits approached USDA for approval of a GM variety that reduced browning after the apple is cut open, one might be tempted to think that this would be a positive development. Anyone who has left a cut-up apple sitting around for more than a few minutes can testify that the cut surfaces turn a most unattractive brownish color.

Try getting a kid to eat a slice of brown apple. Ain’t gonna happen.

But even as USDA opened a comment period on Okanagan’s petition for deregulation of its new biotech apple, USApple didn’t wait for the predictable “outrage” from anti-biotech activists. Instead, the Virginia-based trade group fired back with its own salvo:

“Apples grown in the United States are healthy, delicious and provide essential antioxidents (sic) that are linked to protection from chronic diseases,” the group’s news release stated. “There are no genetically engineered or genetically modified apples available to consumers. There have been recent stories in the press regarding a proposal before USDA to deregulate ArcticTM apples, which are gentically (sic) engineered to prevent browning. USApple does not support the approval of this product.”

Why, one might plausibly ask, would apple growers be against a variety that addresses an aspect of product usage that is perceived as negative? When biotechnology research is used to promote benefits only for growers and producers, activists have a legitimate beef. Genetic engineering has long been touted as a force for improving both the nutritional and sensory quality of the staple foods we eat—only the science rarely seems to deliver anything other than production benefits of limited value to consumers and suspect impact on environmental issues.

Which is why anti-GMO activists have gained such traction in the face of clear scientific evidence of both the safety and efficacy of biotechnology.

Now, they’re getting a nice, friendly push in a negative direction from the food industry itself.

“Consumers like their apples and are not calling for these new ‘nonbrowning’ cultivars,” the group’s statement continued. “Browning is a normal process resulting from exposure to oxygen. Apples that are naturally very low browning are already in the marketplace. In addition, lightly coating sliced or cut apples with Vitamin C-fortified apple juice delays browning prior to serving.”

Really? That’s your “solution” to the issue of browning in fresh apples? Buy some apple juice and coat the slices with it? And not mentioning that it’s the acidic content of the added ascorbic acid that reduces the browning, not the additional apple juice?

After noting that that here are no GMO apples currently in our marketplace and admitting (far down in its statement) that “USApple’s position is not based on any question about human health or safety,” the group offered a limp disclaimer: “USApple supports advancements from technology and genetics and genomics research. Benefits can include attributes such as quality, new apple varieties, new aromatic flavor profiles, improved pest resistance and enhanced nutrition from tree to table.”

But not control of the single most unappealing aspect of their product, apparently.

In other words, USApple opposes approval of the Arctic Apple, not because genetic engineering is problematic, but because anti-biotech opponents will be able to argue that such apples are unnatural, as they do with every genetically engineeredfood crop.

If ever there was a chance to gain ground with the public unconvinced of the risk-benefit calculation of biotechnology, creating a better apple that stays fresher longer after in-home preparation would seem to be the ideal opportunity. The Arctic Apple isn’t at all akin to the ill-fated square tomatoes and steel-skinned strawberries the biotech community was (properly) criticized for promoting as the earlier fruits of genetic engineering research. This is a chance to make a statement that a new and improved Biotech 2.0 can be applied to create genuine consumer benefits, ones that are neither scary nor inconsequential for the consuming public.

USApple says that its members “Endorse a science-based regulatory structure that allows tree fruit biotechnology research to progress but at the same time protects human health and the environment, as well as preserving individual choice and safeguarding the marketplace.”

What the heck does that mean?

It means they’re mistakenly allowing the opponents of biotechnology to take yet another big bite out of the industry’s credibility.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Steve Savage    
Encinitas, California  |  July, 26, 2012 at 01:39 AM

Dan, Your commentary is right on track. The folks that claim to represent the apple industry are letting "brand protection" instincts dominate their response to a technology that has actually been developed by members of their own industry. It is really a sad commentary on the power of the "Fear Industry." As you pointed out, this response from US Apples and others came even before any big push from anti-GMO groups. They just knew what would come and caved in. It is sad

Roger m    
August, 03, 2012 at 02:46 AM

If you cut the apple and it goes brown and no one wants to eat it - then you get to sell a 2nd apple. So self interest means they oppose it.

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