A new type of apple is coming to your grocery store some time soon. Unlike other apples, the Arctic, as it's called, doesn't brown when you cut it open. Is this a promising addition to the market? Or is it the most evil fruit since Adam and Eve?
If you are against genetically modified foods, the answer is "evil," of course.
"It's not labelled, it was approved without consulting the public, and so there is a high level of mistrust," Lucy Sharratt, of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, told the CBC. "We will have no way of telling whether the apple is fresh or not."
In fact, the Arctic is the most scrutinized apple since the Garden of Eden. It has endured five years of rigorous analysis by four regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Health Canada. "Everybody knows this apple is safe," Neal Carter, the small-time apple grower who created it, told me. Bringing it to market has cost millions. Last month, his risk-taking paid off when a U.S. bioengineering company, Intrexon, acquired his tiny outfit for an impressive amount of money. Now he's working on non-browning versions of Fuji and Golden Delicious.
Mr. Carter came late to farming. He spent nearly three decades working around the world as a bioresource engineer before settling in the Okanagan Valley with his wife. He and his team created the Arctic by using the apple's own DNA to turn off the gene that controls the enzyme responsible for browning when the apple is cut open. (Over time, even these apples will still rot and turn brown as they spoil.)
"This is a great way to expand apple consumption," he says. "It will increase the quality of fresh-cut apples a hundredfold."
Mr. Carter expected some resistance. Back in 1999, a group of anti-GMO activists invaded his small orchard and hacked down a bunch of (conventional) trees. Fortunately, they didn't know what they were doing, and the trees survived. But now his research is conducted at undisclosed sites.
Anti-GMO activists aren't his only critics. Large parts of the fruit industry don't like them apples, either. They say genetic modifications could spook the public and taint the entire industry. The B.C. Fruit Growers Association even asked for a moratorium on the Arctic apple. Image concerns aside, it's clear they don't welcome the competition. The apple-slicing industry (which uses chemicals to keep apples looking fresh) isn't happy either.
"It's definitely frustrating," Mr. Carter says. "The small growers in B.C. want government bailouts. They're not progressive. They'd rather bury their heads in the sand than embrace this as a great opportunity. We really think they should let the consumer decide."
So why not just label his apples "GMO"? After all, shouldn't people have GMO labelling if they want it?
"There is no big demand for labelling," he says, citing surveys that put biotech very far down the list of consumers' food concerns. "The pressure for labelling is coming from the anti-GM crowd and the rest of the industry trying to build market share."
There's also a more fundamental reason. "We don't want to demonize the technology. We don't hide where our apples come from. But if we put a GM label on them, basically we are capitulating. The anti-GM crowd has won."
The editors of Scientific American agree. "Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people's health," they wrote.
In fact, bioengineering increases crop yields, cuts production costs and saves people's lives. Golden Rice (which combats vitamin A deficiency) could save more lives than any crop in history – providing Greenpeace doesn't get its way. The World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the European Union all agree that bioengineered crops are as safe as any other foods.
Bioengineering is essential if we want to feed our increasingly populous planet. And if people want to eat more apples – well, that will be a good thing too. "We want Arctic apples in every store," says Mr. Carter. "We want them sliced, diced and put into a smoothie."
It seems wrong to demonize this guy. Maybe we should give him the Order of Canada instead.