Female hands holding red apple at garden at sunny day

Hands Off Our Apples

Apples are, without a doubt, one of the most diversely cultivated fruits in the Northern Temperate climates. Long before modern-day humans existed, the wild apple progenitor had evolved in Central Asia, where it can be found to this day.(1)

Its image is interwoven into the rich fabric of human history. Throughout the ages it has been featured in countless artistic works from paintings and sculptures to domestic needlework. The apple has served as a central icon in many well-known mythical stories and fairy tales, representing aspects of the human condition as diverse as temptation, jealousy, wisdom, love, health and respect.

permaculture student 1

Over the last 6500 years domestic breeding has produced thousands of varieties of apples worldwide. And so, it is with a feeling of profound disappointment that we have learned that a company from British Columbia, Canada has developed the genetically modified Arctic apple, which has recently been approved in both Canada and the United States.

Neal Carter, president and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, was recently quoted by the Canadian Press as saying, “We know that in a convenience-driven world, a whole apple is too big of a commitment.”(2) One can’t help but be struck dumb by this ludicrous statement. Too big of a commitment for whom and in what way?

Young Attractive Woman Dessert Choice Junk Cake Food or healthy Apple
Too big of a commitment…?

After some investigation, it seems that the sole motivation for Okanagan Specialty Fruits’ non-browning apple is to serve the “fresh-cut food sector and the pre-packaged lunch sector markets.” What does this all mean? It means that slices of apple can be sold enclosed in plastic and can be left on store shelves for up to eighteen days without turning brown.

This so-called economically important market is growing rapidly, and food in this sector is always enclosed in plastic packaging, and in some cases, on Styrofoam trays. The Arctic apple is a completely unnecessary addition to a world already literally choking on its own plastic waste, a world that ought to be moving toward a more environmentally healthy and sustainable way of life.

The fresh-cut food market is contributing needlessly to the increase in plastic packaging and is encouraging the growing market of individualism. The number of individually packaged, single servings of products lining supermarket shelves today is overwhelming. From tablespoon-sized portions of yogurt to single-cup serving coffee pods, this inundation of plastic packaging flies in the face of the dire need to heal our planet from the ravages of consumerism.

Dubai - JANUARY 7, 2014: Dubai Supermarket Waitrose on January 7 in Dubai, UAE. Dubai Supermarket Waitrose is the largest supermarket in Dubai
“… this inundation of plastic packaging flies in the face of the dire need to heal our planet…”

This has to be one of the most environmentally damaging marketing schemes in history. From a business point of view, though, it is a most Utopian of situations, as pre-packaged, bite-sized portions can be sold for a higher per-unit price while conveying a seemingly reasonable purchase to the consumer. If this apple garners public acceptance, it will simply be another indicator of how far western societies have become distanced from their food.

Long before the apple was domesticated, Nature had perfected its design. With its own nutrient-dense edible packaging, the apple is already the ultimate convenience food. What could be more convenient, healthful and environmentally-friendly than to include a whole apple in a child’s lunch? For situations that call for sliced apples, there already exist several slow-browning heritage and conventionally-grown varieties such as the Ambrosia, Eden and Poppy. And there are many conventional varieties of apples that, left uncut, store well and can last up to 4-9 months in cold rooms without any treatment. Among them are the Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Empire and MacIntosh.

The genetically modified, non-browning apple is inherently dishonest because it fools the consumer into believing that it is freshly sliced. How old will this apple be when it reaches store shelves, and without the usual visual cues to indicate the apples have started the decaying process, will the temptation to extend their shelf- life exist? Once the apple has exceded its shelf-life, it still needs to be disposed of, and even if it is removed from its packaging and composted, both the consumer and the Earth have the plastic packaging to contend with.

The USDA risk assessment claims that “deregulation (of the genetically modified apple) is not likely to have a significant impact on the human environment.”(3,4) This shortsighted study could not have taken into account the increased plastic packaging for which this apple is designed. The words “not likely” fall far short of being reassuring.

Apple sliced in half. Half fresh and half decayed on white background
“How old will this apple be when it reaches store shelves…”

Marketers often make questionable claims when promoting a product, and those promoting the Arctic apple are no exception. The Okanagan Specialty Fruits’ website targets various consumer groups, among them are fathers and people battling obesity. The claim is that “More and more dads are doing at least half of the shopping for their families.” And, as compared to women, “… men have a particularly high desire for convenient, ready-to-eat foods.”(5) One could infer from these statements that men are too lazy to cut an apple for their children or too indifferent to care about nutrition.

As for those consumers trying to lose weight, the site fails to make the connection between weight loss and a non-browning fruit. Is this group of consumers also too incompetent to slice an apple? Or are they more likely to choose a genetically modified apple than a traditional one over an unhealthy snack because it is sliced and packaged in plastic?

Unfortunately, Okanagan Specialty Fruits was in no way influenced by overwhelming opposition from the BC Fruit Growers’ Association and the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, the largest apple producing area in the province of British Columbia.

Okanagan Specialty Fruits has been acquired by Intrexon, a large US-based firm with plans to modify more apples and other types of produce using the same non-browning technology, effectively eliminating an important indication that the fruit has begun the decaying process. Compounding that deception is the fact that the genetically modified produce will not be labelled as such.

In an interview with CBC Radio, Neal Carter ineffectually danced around the question of why the fruit will not be labelled as GM.(6) Consumers are tired of being duped and misled where their food choices are concerned. What better way to advance permaculture than to make the public so distrustful of food producers that they are even more motivated to shop at local markets or grow their own produce? Could these products effectively destroy an industry? Will the Arctic apple become the proverbial “one bad apple that spoils the barrel”?

The well-known adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” speaks to the apple’s nutritional properties; the description “as American as apple pie” refers to the notions of basic liberties and freedoms; the act of presenting a teacher with an apple embodies respect for learning and wisdom. Hopefully, that respect for wisdom, learning and freedom symbolized by the beloved apple will extend to its becoming emblematic of the protection of naturally occurring genetic and biological diversity and the basic freedom to know if one’s food has been genetically modified.

References:

1. Cornille A., Gladieux P., Smulders M. J. M Roldán-Ruiz I., Laurens F., Le Cam B., Nersesyan A., Clavel J., Olonova M., Feugey L., Gabrielyan I., Zhang X., TenaillonM.I., Giraud T., New Insight into the History of Domesticated Apple: Secondary Contribution of the European Wild Apple to the Genome of Cultivated Varieties PLOS Genetics Published: May 10, 2012 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002703 Retrieved from:
http://journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371/journal.pgen.1002703

2. Jalonick M.C., Ridler K., Canadian, U.S. agencies approve genetically engineered B.C. apples as safe, The Associated Press Oneline News from the Canadian Press 2015 Retrieved from:
http://www.thecanadianpress.com/english/online/OnlineFullStory.aspx?filename=DOR-MNN- CP.78bea90c08494413aa11ba9fbccc0d2c.CPKEY2008111300≠wsitemid=32371840〈uageid= 1

3. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Stakeholders Announcement USDA Announces Deregulation of Non-Browning Apples Retrieved from:
http://www.aphis.usda.gov/stakeholders/downloads/2015/SA_arctic_apples.pdf

4. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) USDA Announces Deregulation of Non-Browning Apples February 13, 2015, Retrieved from:
https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/newsroom/news/!ut/p/z0/fYxBDoIwFERP49K0EHEPRo2EgIkxgW6aD1SowC-0VeT2krp3Ny8zbwgjOWEIb9mAlQqhX7lge55ku4MX3WhyPl2PNLxncXRJqU_TgMSE_R-sD_I5TSwkrFJoxceSHMZWGu4QLe9lqUEvG2qAo5iNVmpwYCx0olV9LTQHRPXCSgyrYVxbLrwGK1z2qRe48BClfrmzyv78VeSocFtqNaPEBsaxF4aMHSu-MrL-yw!!/

5. Joel’s Blog, Dads shopping more than ever before, looking for convenient options Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. Summerland, B.C Canada Thu, 2014-06-12 09:04 Retrived from:
http://www.okspecialtyfruits.com/blog/joel/dads-shopping-more-ever-looking- convenient-options

6. Food Fight: Canada’s newly approved GM apple-Home –CBC Thursday March 26, 2015 Retrieved from:
http://www.cbc.ca/radio/the180/keeping-murder-secret-income-inequality-debate-gmo- apples-1.3011232/food-fight-canada-s-newly-approved-gm-apple-1.3011464

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6 thoughts on “Hands Off Our Apples

  1. I have some suggestions about your article. I was interested in finding out how available the conventionally bred apples were. I checked and found that the apple variety you mentioned, ‘Poppy’, isn’t known as a slow-browning apple, but is actually called “Poppy’s Wonder’. You may have gotten that information from the Commondreams.ca article that did mention ‘Ambrosia’.

    ‘Ambrosia’ is a “Club” apple trademarked with production limited mainly to one grower in Washington State, USA and which may be difficult to grow elsewhere when it’s patent expires in 2019 (2034 outside USA)

    I haven’t been able to find ‘Eden’ at any nursery.

    I was able to find another slow-browning apple, Opal, also a “Club” type apple unavailable to grow but produced and marketed as fruit.

  2. Huh, small world. I live in the same town as founders Neal and Louisa Carter, and in fact I spent a summer thinning apples in his (not yet GMO) orchard.

    I’ve also chatted with John Armstrong (research manager), who was understandably quite excited about their product. In my mind I was thinking all sorts of anti-GMO thoughts, but I listened courteously (and with interest, cuz I love science).

    John explained that, when you expose an apple’s insides to oxygen, there’s a polyphenol that turns brown and sticky. He said that scientists figure it’s meant to gum up the ovipositors of egg-laying insects. So it’s a pest control measure. Presumably, this means that Arctic apples will require more pesticides because they’re more vulnerable.

    It almost defies belief. Here we have this amazing knowledge and technology which might be put to fantastically good use. It might even be considered ‘appropriate technology’ in some cases (I know that idea probably won’t be a popular idea in permaculture circles)… yet we’re piddling around with small dreams like making apples that stay white until they go mouldy.

    I understand that genetic engineering is expensive, so naturally it’s going to be done by the folks who want to make a profit. But as we permies believe, that creates all sorts of temptations toward profit-driven abuses of the technology. Or, in this case, squandering it on solutions to nonexistent problems.

  3. Paul’s comment led me on some more interesting study into polyphenols. Polyphenols are one of the main antioxidants which make apples healthy, for they scavenge free-radical oxygen molecules which contribute to aging and inflammation.
    Reading about the Eden apple, I found that the reason it is slow-browning is because it has one of the lowest amounts of polyphenols.
    The Arctic apples derive their non-browning trait differently, having normal polyphenol content. Apples brown because when bruised or cut an enzyme called PPO which is present in the flesh breaks down polyphenols and makes them turn brown.
    Arctic apples do not brown because the gene which creates the PPO has been deleted using biotechnology. According to the tests done on Eden, browning does occur after a few days, presumably because even with low polyphenols it does have PPO’s.
    So, which non-browning apple do you prefer, the conventionally bred Eden apple with low polyphenol content, or the Arctic apple with more or less normal polyphenol content?
    Based strictly on the nutritional value, the Arctic seems the better choice.
    If it turns out that Arctic apples are more vulnerable to pests due to their non-browning trait, based solely on pesticide use it would be a poor choice.
    The niche for non-browning trait really isn’t so large. I expect that a very small percentage of consumption goes into fresh-cut packaging, mainly for travel use, though I do recall my children balking at yucky looking brown apples cut for school lunches. Packed in reusable containers, of course…
    Since I am not dogmatically opposed to biotechnology, and see that the Arctic apples modification does have a consumer benefit as well as a producer benefit, I would be willing to buy some, perhaps for a party fruit tray.

  4. Looking a bit further, I found that the genetic potential of apples is quite high. At the beginning of the article, mention was made of the wild Central Asian origin of apples. Some of those had red flesh because they contained high levels of a compound called anthocyanin, part of the polyphenols, and also a potent antioxidant.
    Presumably, somewhere along the time when apples were domesticated the red color disappeared, perhaps because it was linked to bitter taste or some other trait, and most current apples are white/yellow/pink/reddish.
    This is relevant because the New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research several years ago bred a red fleshed variant of ‘Royal Gala’ apple with 5000x more anthocyanins than original ‘Royal Gala’. Rather than extensive backcrossing with the wild apple, the Institute used biotechnology to identify the specific gene in the wild form and insert it into the ‘Royal Gala’. The result is said to be delicious.
    Perversely, because biotechnology is banned in New Zealand, the red apples had to be flown to the US for tasting to avoid a $10 million fine for consumption!
    Further research on mice showed significant decreases in inflammation when fed with the red apples. Consider how close to conventional breeding this effort really was, adding an apple gene to an apple, and the significant possibilities such techniques allow, creating nutraceutical plants using biotechnology for crop improvement.
    The work was publicly funded and the product hasn’t been released. How should permaculture practitioners respond to this? What do the Ethics of permaculture say about this? I’d enjoy hearing answers to these questions.
    About the red fleshed ‘Royal Gala’ Forbidden Fruit:

    http://scienceblogs.com/tomorrowstable/2011/04/04/forbidden-fruit-the-red-red-ap/

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