In this emerging world of Food Inc.-enthused, health-conscious pundits, (where magazine articles have made experts of us all in one way or another), the demand for more fresh, organic, locally-sourced and naturally-derived products has given birth not just to the hipster movement, (yes, love it or hate it) but to a whole new breed of thinkers and doers. For the first time in decades, we, the consumer, have regained some kind of control over our food source by choosing to buy or not to buy certain products. In doing so, we bear witness to the vast social, environmental, political and fiscal implications of such power projected on a global scale. It’s taken a little bit of time, but slowly we’re learning and growing, building our houses out of much stronger materials. First hay, then sticks, now bricks. For better or worse, the Information Age, has opened our hearts and minds to the endowment of knowledge, making three very healthy, nut-raised, antibiotic-free porkers out of our three little piggies and one, terrible big bad wolf from the GMO food industry.
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are one of the biggest polarizing issues of our time, crossing the Rubicon into what many believe, is dangerous and hostile territory. A surefire game-changer in the way we think about food and treat food, the GMO movement has been a formidable force in global food production over the past 20 years, prompting fierce debate over its necessity and validity. Currently, at the centre of controversy, is Okanagan Specialty Fruits, (OSF), a small Canadian company, based out of Summerland, British Columbia. Over the past decade OSF have been working on developing an genetically engineered, non-browning apple, which the company has coined, the Arctic
Apple. Due to the genetically altering process by which it is grown, this particular apple does not turn brown after its been bruised or sliced. At least not for several weeks. Recently, OSF has received approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to market and commercially distribute it’s genetically modified apple, selling their technology to Intrexon Corporation, for a cool $41 million. The first batch of these GE apples are set to be sold in select, small test markets in late-2016. Now OSF is setting its sights on genetically engineering golden delicious and granny smith apple varieties, as well as gala and fuji in the near future. A non-browning apple may not sound incredibly threatening, maybe even enticing – after all – who likes eating brown fruit? Yet, browning may not be the problem. When dealing with all GMO products, the question is not – can we, it’s, should we, and why?
Although somewhat of an aesthetic nuisance, apples, as well as bananas, pears, avocados and other fruits are meant to turn brown naturally after they’ve been exposed to the air. Targeted by one particular enzyme, polyphenol oxidase, oxidation in apples occurs when oxygenated iron cofactors within the fruit react, losing electrons to molecules in the air. But apart from being somewhat visually unappealing, browning does not cause the fruit to go off, nor does it alter the flavour or texture of the fruit. So where, might you ask, is the need for a non-browning apple? Despite the fact that many of us (especially our children) tend to be visual eaters by habit and instinct, to contest browning in fruit, seems rather trivial, especially when we are faced with far more real concerns, like world hunger, drought, global climate change, the destruction of natural habitats and our environment. Perhaps conjured by a Mary Antoinette alter-ego, in its ownHameau de la Reine narrative, the arctic apple has become the hobby farm of our time, masquerading as a working farm. Of course we want to pick our own eggs, just so long as they’re not covered in feathers and mud. After all, we don’t really want to think about where they come from just so long as they look pretty.
When most of us think, GMO, we think, mutated chemical-derived “thing.” The “it” of the food industry. But in fact, almost everything that we eat today has been genetically modified in some way through the historical, agricultural practices of our ancestors thousands of years ago. Foods created by merging DNA from different species, or by artificially selecting and then replicating particular features and traits for specific purposes, (much like the kind of selective breeding we’ve seen in domestic plants and animals over the course of history) can all be referred to as GMO. Before the advent of agriculture, our ancestors lived off of the limited food varieties and nutrients that occurred naturally in the wild. However, once farming practices took hold, selectively breeding animals and plants to be bigger, hardier and easier to manage, helped create established settlements, and with it, social contract and civilization. From chickens to cows, kale, broccoli, cabbage and tomatoes, almonds, apples and apricots, wheat and corn, much of our food source has been the subject of historical selective breading. Although biotechnology and GMO looks quite different today than it did 10,000 years ago, the principal theory remains the same: genetically altering components of a particular product for a particular desired outcome. So what’s the harm with a genetically modified apple?
Primarily designed for fast food companies and food processing companies, the Arctic Apple was not conceived as a benefit to the general public, rather as a benefit to multinational enterprise. Designed to look fresh when they’re not, Arctic Apples may be downright deceiving, and somewhat counterintuitive. A 2012 poll commission by the BC Fruit Growers’ Association targeting the Arctic Apple, demonstrated significant concern among the public, with 69 percent of respondents opposing approval. Many believe that contamination from GM apples may pose a risk to their organic and natural counterparts, while the spontaneous spreading of apples seeds and pollen from the GM apple trees by birds, bees and other pollinating insects cannot realistically be controlled. Others contend that Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency should not be using public funds to review a GM apple without first consulting farmers or consumers. Health concerns have also been raised. Many studies have shown links between certain GMO foods and allergies, (yellow corn and an engineered soya bean containing Brazilian nut protein are case in point) as well as possible links to immune reactions and cancer. Lastly, it may be argued that supportingGMOs, in any shape or form, has become widely synonymous with supporting a degradation of our global environment, as well as consumer independence. While GMOs have developed increasing resistance to widespread applications of pesticides and herbicides, we are now using more chemicals, which costs farmers, causes damage to the environment and raises further health concerns, (not to mention the self-supporting features of the GMO industry – Monsanto and Round-Up? Case in point). Many countries around the world have chosen to ban the use of GMOs, or at least limit their applications. Italy, Austria, France and Germany have either banned all GE crops and trails outright, or have placed bans on certain GE crops such as GM maize and rapeseed. Other countries that have followed in suit. Luxembourg, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Switzerland, U.K., Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Thaliand, Philippines, Saudia Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Brazil and Paraguay.
The GMO question should be simple: Why? Why GMO? Is it benefiting the public? Is it helping the environment? Is it improving world hunger? Or is it simple about profit margins and the bottom line? We have to ask ourselves: isGMO necessary? Of course while the price of avoiding GMOs may mean a higher grocery bill, at the end of the day, its not just about money spent at the till, its about investing in our future and our children’s future, and the choice is ours. Every day, when we cast our vote at the supermarket, by choosing to buy certain products over others, we should, each of us, take a moment to really think about who we’re voting for and what our choices could mean for our world and posterity.