What are genetically modified apples? It's GMO awareness month, which means the public cry against Genetically Modified Organisms (also called Genetically Engineered Organisms, abbreviated as GEOs) is in full tilt. It's therefore an appropriate time to let Canadians know that their beloved apples are also under threat of becoming unnaturally manipulated in the lab. In this 6 part blog series, I detail the reasons for and against the proposed new breed of this delicious pomaceous fruit.
In Part 1 of this blog series, I described the background for why a fruit growing company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF) based in Summerland, British Columbia, applied to Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for approval of a genetically modified apple (GM apple). In Part 2, I gave a brief background of what it means to genetically engineer an apple and I debunked the OSF's claim that GM apples safer than other GMOs. In Part 3, I discuss the potential ecological dangers of GMOs and explain why it would be prudent to prevent the GM apple from being commercialized.
Potential Ecological Dangers of Genetically Modified Apples
The impacts of GMOs on wildlife and ecosystems are immeasurable and currently unknown. What is certainly known is that once GMOs breed or exchange genetic material with non-GMOs, the repercussions are irreversible, unpredictable, and potentially profound. Growing GM crops in outdoor test plots is just as dangerous as the widespread commercial agriculture of GM plants.
Cross-pollination of GM apple trees with organic and non-GE apple crops as well as with wildccultivars by foraging bees is a very real threat. Studies show that up to one-third of worker bumble bees can forage more than 2 km from the nest whereas honey bees can forage up to 6 km from the hive. Foraging distance varies with the species and size of bee (for example, one tropical bee species can forage up to 24 km from its nest). However, all bees are fast long-distance fliers, assiduous pollinators, and efficient foragers—their effectiveness in spreading pollen across plants is remarkable and should not be underestimated.
Apiary bees used as commercial pollinators are routinely moved across different plots of a given orchard—some of which can be close enough to an organic orchard that the possibility of pollen spread is increased—and individual bees always carry minute amounts of pollen on their body. Contamination of organic crops with pollen from genetically engineered plants is a big threat to the organic industry and can result in significant economic losses (see Part 4 of this blog series).
While many entomologists assert that the amount of pollen foraging bees can transfer between GM and non-GM crops is negligible, the reality is that cases of cross-pollination have already been reported. There are no known methods of confining bees to forage only within a specific area or plot. Bee-to-bee pollen transfer within the hive is also a possible means of spreading GM pollen (as has been recorded for rapeseed crop fields).
Apple blossoms are zoophilous—that is, they're pollinated primarily by animals. Various bees, wasps, and flies are the most important pollinators. While some apple varieties can self-pollinate, which means that the pollen from one flower can pollinate another on the same tree, others can be pollinated only by another tree of the same cultivar, and some may require cross-pollination, which means that fruit will set only with the pollen from a different cultivar. Bloom time varies with the apple cultivar, and those that bloom concomitantly can pollinate each other.
The proposed GM apple cultivars are all mid-season bloomers, which means they could pollinate early-, mid-, and late-season blooming apple varieties. This increases the vulnerability of non-GM apples to be contaminated by GM trees.
Furthermore, zoophilous flowers are still susceptible to passive pollen transfer via wind. Although this may be a minor factor because zoophilous flowers may not effectively capture airborne pollen, the possibility of wind dispersal of pollen from GM plants remains an inevitable consequence of growing GM crops in trial plots and as commercial crops.
In addition to contamination of crops via animal-assisted pollination, seeds from GM crops disperse freely and thus persist in the seedbank and the environment at large—GM canola has been found growing in the wild and “volunteer plants” are a regular occurrence. (Volunteer plants are those that weren’t intentionally planted but that arose from residual GM seeds that germinated from the parent crop grown previously in the field.) Over time, even low levels of contamination will multiply and it’s presently unfathomable what the long-term consequences of this inevitable infiltration of non-GM plants by GMOs will be.
In Part 4 of this blog series, I describe the potential biological (health-related) and economic consequences and dangers of growing genetically modified apples in the Okanagan Valley.
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You can download a .pdf of the article in its entirety, including references, at the bottom of this page.