Nearly every morning I slice and eat an apple with my breakfast. I am particularly fond of Fujis, Galas, and Granny Smiths. Now the New York Times tells me that the some nice Canadian apple growers, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, have developed an improved biotech apple that does not brown when cut. Hooray!
Not so fast say the forces of darkness (or is it brown-ness?)! As the Times reports:
But the U.S. Apple Association, which represents the American apple industry, opposes introduction of the product, as do some other industry organizations. They say that, while they do not believe that the genetic engineering is dangerous, it could undermine the fruit's image as a healthy and natural food, the one that keeps the doctor away and is as American as, well, apple pie.
"We don't think it's in the best interest of the apple industry of the United States to have that product in the marketplace at this time," said Christian Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents the tree-fruit industry in and around Washington State, which produces about 60 percent of the nation's apples.
Say what? Who the hell is "We" – I want to try them apples! The would-be growers of these improved apples believe that selling them will expand the market. How? Well, for example, my gym typically has a bowl of whole apples available for the taking, yet very few people actually snag one. As Neal Carter the founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits observes:
A whole apple is "for many people too big a commitment," he said. "If you had a bowl of apples at a meeting, people wouldn't take an apple out of the bowl. But if you had a plate of apple slices, everyone would take a slice."
I believe that he's right. So why do apple industry lobbyists oppose the new improved varieties? It's not only competitive worries, but also fears that self-appointed anti-biotech propagandists will attack the entire industry. And sure enough the Times hauls out anti-biotechie who acts like a talking snake has just offered her a bite:
Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a coalition of groups critical of genetically engineered crops…. said the genetic engineering was "designed to turn the apple into an industrialized product" that could be sold in plastic bags instead of as whole fresh fruit.
And just what nefarious genetic manipulations have the developers used to make this FrankenFruit?
Arctic Apples, which would first be available in the Golden Delicious and Granny Smith varieties, contain a synthetic gene that sharply reduces production of polyphenol oxidase, an enzyme responsible for the browning.
The gene does not come from another species. Rather, it contains DNA sequences from four of the apple's own genes that govern production of polyphenol oxidase. Putting an extra copy of a gene into a plant can activate a self-defense mechanism known as RNA interference that shuts down both the extra copy and the endogenous gene.
That's right – no new genes added; not that there's anything inherently wrong with adding new genes. And there's no difference in the nutritional value of the improved varieties versus the conventional ones.
That's all very well about their nutritional value, but if the biotech apples don't taste as good or better than their conventional competitors, then it won't matter if they don't brown. In any case, it should not be up to cowering industry lobbyists or lying anti-biotechies to decide whether the new varieties are a good deal or not; in a free market economy the ultimate arbiters should be consumers. I want my biotech apples now!