How do you like them apples?
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.