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 discussed the potential ecological dangers of GMOs and explain why it would be prudent to prevent the GM apple from being commercialized. In Part 4 of this blog series, I describe the potential biological (health-related) and economic consequences and dangers of the proposed GM apple.
Potential Biological (Health) Dangers of Genetically Modified Apples
The ultimate, long-term impact to the health of humans and other organisms by GMOs may be profound and dire or superficial and mild—the outcome is unpredictable because genetically engineering isn’t a precise science. GM technology is actually a crude method that involves haphazard manipulation and modification of an organism’s genes. It is certainly fascinating that humans have discovered how to manipulate genetic material at all, but the techniques used to engineer and modify the genes of a cell are still not sophisticated enough to preclude errors that could have profound and wide-reaching negative consequences.
The organisms that are spawned from genetic engineering are quite literally mutants because their DNA has been infected with a bacterial or viral vector that randomly inserts foreign DNA (that is, DNA from another species as in the case of transgenic GMOs or DNA from the same species that has been somehow artificially modified as in the case of cisgenic GMOs; see Part 2 of this blog series) into the genetic material of the organism.
No matter which way you look at them, GMOs are completely unnatural.
One of the claimed advantages of the GM apple is an extended shelf life, which will apparently benefit both industry and consumers. However, this suggests that a potential intention or inevitable consequence of using nonbrowning GM apples is that the fruits can be cut and processed several weeks and possibly months (or longer) prior to consumption.
Consumers will have no visible indication that the fruit is old and oxidized because it will always appear as a fresh, nonbrowned apple notwithstanding how long ago it had been processed and stored. Irrespective of its colour and cosmetic appearance, fruit that has been sliced and that is old loses its nutritional value over time.
As with other GM crops, there is a potential for allergic reactions and/or toxic effects to the ArcticTM apple because these are threats posed by all GMOs, as evidenced by studies on laboratory and farm animals. It’s unknown if and how humans may react to the bacterial and viral vectors in the GM crop and it’s difficult to determine whether genetically manipulating a crop will result in the synthesis of a new plant allergen or toxin that somehow affects humans or wildlife. Part of the reason for this is that genetically engineering an organism often impacts the expression of naturally occurring genes, and these changes aren’t always obvious to researchers before or even after the organism has matured.
Potential Economic Dangers
Organic farming is an important part of the agricultural market and economic welfare of the South-Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys of south-central British Columbia. The Similkameen Valley boasts the densest concentration of organic farms in all of Canada—approximately 40 % of the farms are organic—and approximately 15 % of the farmland is protected in a nature conservancy.
Planting GM crops in the vicinity of the organic farms in the Okanagan-Similkameen, especially in a region where a high number of organic farms are very closely situated, threatens the economic viability of local organic farmers and may affect the eligibility for organic certification. In this case, the standard buffer zones that separate adjacent farms may not provide sufficient isolation distance to prevent exchange of pollen between GM and non-GM and organic crops, especially if the field of genetically modified crops flanks more than one organic farm.
Buffer zones are intended to protect organic farms from contamination from pesticides, particularly chemicals that are air-borne, those that seep into the groundwater, and those that flow from farm runoff. To date, there is no established buffer zone that protects organic farms from being exposed to GM pollen, seeds, or volunteer plants (see Part 3 of this blog series to learn more about volunteer plants).
In 2001, local Okanagan growers concerned about genetically modified apples contaminating their own natural cultivars petitioned to stop the planting of test plots in Summerland at the federal government agricultural station called the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre. The message for the government and pro-GM farmers was clear—the majority of growers in the region don’t want GM crops in their community. And for good reason! The negative ecological and economic impacts of GMOs are irreversible.
In Part 5 of this blog series, I will consider whether or not developing and commercializing the genetically modified apple is at all necessary, let alone favourable.
Look for the Non-GMO Project logo throughout the vitarock.com website to buy GMO-free certified foods and products such as those recommended below.
You can download a .pdf of the article in its entirety, including references, at the bottom of this page.