In the Okanagan-Similkameen region there is an ongoing dustup over the merits or lack thereof of growing a non-browning apple developed by a small locally-based biotech company using an enabling technology developed some years ago by a major Australian public research organization. In the jargon of the business it’s a genetically modified (GM) crop that expresses an “output trait” (i.e., a trait intended primarily to benefit consumers versus an “input trait” like insect resistance which is intended primarily to benefit producers). As GM crops go, it could be classified as “GM light” since all the technology does is turn off genes that produce the enzyme (polyphenol oxidase) that causes the browning reaction. Apples incorporating the trait have not yet been released commercially because they are undergoing regulatory review in Canada and the United States.
In the meantime, the major organization representing apple growers in the region has decided to oppose the commercialization of the non-browning apple, should it receive regulatory approval, on the basis that there is a negative public perception of GM crops, organic growers don’t like any GM crop period, and there is fear of an economic backlash against all apple growers if a few hectares of the GM apple are grown in this region. At this point any tolerance by the industry for the non-browning apple would be contingent on government guarantees to protect them from financial losses resulting from the introduction of the GM apple.
During my career as a federal agricultural research manager, one of the things I learned is that whether it’s major corporations promoting a GM crop or the organic industry demonizing it, there are some similarities between the two. Some participants in both sectors have at times ignored or played down inconvenient truths to confuse and mislead the general public (most of whom, understandably, know little about crop genetics or agricultural production systems) and both are motivated by self-interest more related to their economic well-being than to the broader public interest.
Governments have the responsibility and duty to look out for the public interest and the Canadian government to its credit in my view has thus far worked hard over the years to balance competing interests in the agri-food sector (which is a morass of competing interests) and to have its regulations science-based. There is no compelling technical reason why GM apples and organic apples cannot be grown in the same growing region provided some reasonable accommodation is made by the parties involved in a spirit of compromise and live and let live, backed up by scientifically sound regulatory protocols. Given the fuss that’s been made over the yet to be approved or released GM apple, it would be difficult to know at this point, if it is released and there is a backlash against all apple producers, whether this would have been an inevitable consequence or whether it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It seems very odd in any case, in a free society and a market economy, that one group of growers should be able to dictate to another group of growers what they may or may not grow when no laws or regulations are being violated either in fact or in spirit.
Overall, worldwide, there is an increasing trend towards not having a knee-jerk reaction against all GM crops but to consider them individually on the basis of the benefits versus risks they pose. As Doug Saunders recently noted in an article in the June 2, 2012 edition of The Globe and Mail (‘Frankenfoods’ have moved on. When will opponents?), “[g]enetically modified food has gone from dark corporate plot to progressive rallying cry” and “[o]pposition to biotech has been left to revanchist agrarian conservatives . . ., a handful of fundamentalist green groups and people who believe what they read in the tabloids.”
It might be worthwhile for apple growers in BC to reconsider whether an adverse outcome need necessarily be the most probable one. Perhaps there is an opportunity here to exercise vision and leadership in moving the industry forward by accommodating greater diversity in production systems in order to give consumers an array of (clearly labelled) choices. After all, GM papaya (resistant to a virus disease) has been grown commercially in Hawaii since 1998, has been credited with saving the industry, and, as well as being consumed in the US, is exported to Canada and Japan. At this point, however, the BC apple growers have opted instead for a risk averse approach and this is certainly understandable in a situation where there is a small (BC produces about 0.15% of the world’s apple crop) economically stressed industry focused on short-term survival. I suspect, however, that some in the industry may live to regret having passed up an opportunity in their own neighbourhood which then turns out to benefit consumers and enrich growers and processors south of the border and around the world.
Recently Henry I. Miller and Robert Wager have published a scholarly essay on the non-browning apple in Defining Ideas, a publication of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Almost a quarter of a century ago I gave a speech at a Canada Grains Council meeting where I talked about sustainable agriculture (1). The subject was quite topical at the time as the meeting was held not long after the publication of Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development (the “Brundtland Report”) (2) which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Agricultural lands are an essential part of our environment, as well as our economy. How they are utilized and managed, and how other parts of our environment — be they urban, cultivated, or natural — are handled, will have important consequences with respect to the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of agricultural production in Canada.
While the boundaries of the proposed park have yet to be defined, going by the economic benefits study published in 2005 by the South Okanagan Similkameen National Park Steering Committee (2) the park would have an area of about 350-400 square kilometers (3.3–3.8% of the land area of the regional district), while others have argued that it should be at least 1,000 square kilometers, which is just under 10% of the land area of the regional district. More recent iterations have excluded the Snowy Protected Area as part of the national park and peg the estimated area of the park as 280 square kilometers (3). At 400 square kilometers the proposed park would be the sixth largest national park in British Columbia and would bring the total area of the national parks in British Columbia to 6,770 square kilometers, which is 0.7% of the total land mass of British Columbia. Read more…
For a number of years now the national agency (Parks Canada) responsible for establishing and maintaining national parks has been examining the feasibility of establishing a national park in the dry interior area of southern British Columbia near the US border. At first glance this would seem to be a “no brainer.” There is no national park in this region and, as the National Parks System Plan notes, “this is one of the most ecologically diverse regions in Canada, and a significant portion of the region’s biota is found nowhere else in the country.” Just recently, however, the government of British Columbia has decided not to proceed with this initiative, leaving the federal government with no choice other than to curtail its efforts since, according to Section 5 of the Canada National Parks Act, the federal government cannot establish a national park unless “the government of the province in which those lands are situated has agreed to their use for that purpose.”
So what happened? Well, the issue became controversial and polarized, pitting those who view a national park as the best available option to preserve and protect endangered ecosystems and their species diversity against those who want to be able to ranch, hunt, cut wood, operate off-road vehicles, etc. in the area that would be set aside for the park. While various rationales have been put forward by the park opponents to justify their opposition, including destruction of homes and crops as a result of catastrophic firestorms and lustily breeding wildlife running amok, the real reason, I believe, boils down to a strong sense of entitlement on the part of the park opponents to be able to carry on in the future as they do now and to not have to curtail or modify their activities in order to accommodate some idealistic notion of protecting, for all Canadians, an unique part of our national heritage. Also, the opponents can point to various parcels of land in the area that are afforded some degree of protection — areas with evocative names like Kobau, Chopaka and Kilpoola. Read more…
I do conclude that the best available data indicate that it’s highly likely that it’s happening, at an unprecedented rate, and that humans are responsible for most of it.
It sometimes seems that the public debate about climate change is positioned as a matter of belief (you do or you don’t). From a scientific perspective this is not how you develop an hypothesis. You start with data — observations and measurements that can be verified by others who have the knowledge and skill to repeat the measurements. From the data you can test or develop an hypothesis or a set of hypotheses that might explain the significance of the data.
One of the datasets that got people thinking about climate change consisted of measurements of the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere over time. Based on reasonably unimpeachable data from Mauna Loa, Hawaii, the concentration of atmospheric CO2 during my baby boomer lifetime has increased steadily from about 315 parts per million (ppm) to over 390 ppm as I write this. This is close to a 25% increase over a period of time that is not even a blink in geological time scales. For thousands of years prior to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that got underway towards the end of the 18th century, again using relatively unimpeachable data from ice cores, CO2 levels were fairly constant in the vicinity of 260-280 ppm.
Well, so what? This leads to the question of what role CO2 might play in relation to temperature regulation on the surface of the one and only planet we can call home. The hypothesis here is that atmospheric CO2 plays a major role in trapping heat from the sun, analogous to the way in which sun’s heat shining through glass in an enclosed space can be trapped; hence the reference to CO2 as a “greenhouse gas.”
The current best estimate is that temperature of the earth has increased by about 8/10ths of a degree Celsius since about 1880. This may not seem like much, but it’s actually a significant increase and the effects of this increase are showing up now, especially — as predicted by the climate change models — in the higher latitudes (i.e., in the colder regions of the planet). Read more…
No one really knows how many people are alive today, but the UN decided that October 31, 2011 was as good a time as any to peg the number at 7,000,000,000. This has prompted a lot of commentary on what this means for humanity now and in the future.
One of the best crafted of the situation appraisals I’ve seen is an app, 7 BILLION, that has been put together by the National Geographic Magazine. It is available as a free download and is a good example of a multimedia approach to addressing a complex subject. The app is sponsored by DuPont so, if you wish, you can get a sense of this corporation’s Weltanschauung. I would recommend it even if you are cynical about the motivations of large and powerful corporations, as so many are these days. I would argue that the perspective of a successful company built on the application of scientific and technical innovation is worth considering.
The statistics presented are mind boggling. If you were born around the middle of the 20th century the world’s population has more than doubled during your lifetime from about three billion to seven billion and is expected to peak at about nine billion by the middle of this century.
Nine billion will be nine times what the world’s population was in 1800 and 35 times what it was when Christ was born. Read more…