The History of Genetically Modified Produce
Calgene, a biotechnology company based in Davis, CA wanted to produce a tomato with improved taste and a longer shelf life. To accomplish this, the company’s researchers targeted a gene for an enzyme affecting tomato softening during the ripening process. Using methods to block expression of the gene, the researchers were able to delay ripening by suppressing the accumulation of this enzyme resulting in the FLAVR SAVR™ tomato.
Conventional tomatoes are picked unripe off the vine for easier handling and longer shelf-life purposes. With the FLAVR SAVR™ tomato, Calgene attempted to develop a tomato that would ripen on the vine while not softening in the process.
Unfortunately, although the fruit’s shelf-life was extended, it did not decrease fruit softening nor did it improve fruit firmness. However, through additional breeding, the FLAVR SAVR™ tomato achieved tastier varieties favored by consumers who were willing to pay a premium price for the tomatoes at supermarkets. Nonetheless, due to high production costs at the time, the FLAVR SAVR™ tomato was never profitable and is no longer commercially available.
For the past 10 years, oranges, like papaya, have been plagued with a destructive disease called citrus greening. The disease is transmitted by a tiny bacteria-carrying insect interfering with the nutrition of an orange tree – first damaging the fruit and eventually destroying the tree.
For example, the Arctic® apple variety was created by turning off the synthesis of the protein that causes browning. Arctic® apples reduce the need for preservatives used in the sliced apple industry to slow down the natural browning process of cut apples. Okanagan Specialty Fruits announced the first commercial harvest of Arctic® Golden apples in October and the upcoming sale of fresh sliced apples in North American test markets in early 2017.
Likewise, in Innate® potato varieties, several different proteins are silenced resulting in a potato with reduced bruising and lower levels of sugars and the amino acid, asparagine – both of which contribute to the formation of acrylamide (a chemical that can cause nerve damage and is labeled a likely carcinogen by the U.S. EPA) when potatoes are exposed to high heat.
Browning in apples and potatoes along with bruising and acrylamide production in potatoes are all traits deemed undesirable by consumers as well as farmers.
“The No. 1 consumer complaint [about potatoes] is black spot bruise.”
— Haven Baker, general manager of plant sciences at the J. R. Simplot Company
Significant volumes of food are wasted when farmers and consumers throw out bruised and/or brown apples and potatoes. Both Innate® potato and Arctic® apple varieties can reduce this waste. Other benefits include a reduced need for chemical treatments.
Recently, the FDA approved the second generation of Innate® potato varieties having all the previous variety’s traits plus enhanced cold storage capability and late blight resistance. A late blight resistance potato can reduce the amount of fungicide spray on the crop by fighting the disease from within.
However, even with the use of more natural ways of modifying produce traits and with necessary approval from the U.S. government regulators and support from consumers and farmers, some of the biggest potato buyers, like Frito-Lay and McDonald’s, say they will not use Innate® potatoes.
Without major buyer support, potato and apple growers will not plant these new varieties and leading industry associations are not putting their support behind these products.
Unfortunately, the critics of GMO technology have capitalized on the common misunderstanding of this technology, which has made consumers very wary of genetically engineered crops primarily due to a lack of understanding (see more discussion of this in our article, GMOs – A Refresher).
Anti-GMO groups have also urged food retailers and manufacturers to denounce use of GMO ingredients in their food products. Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group based in Washington D.C., launched a petition demanding McDonald’s renounce GMO potatoes. Because consumers are still not comfortable with GMO technology, Food and Water Watch believes food manufacturers and food service companies should reject ingredients and food items with this technology
Wendy’s Company, Gerber, and McDonald’s have all come forward and said they will not be offering Arctic® apples on their menu or using them in their products.
“We don’t see that there’s any flaw in the technology as far as a safety issue.” — Wendy Brannen, former director of consumer health and public relations, U.S. Apple Association. She went on to say that there are concerns related to consumers’ response to the new GM apple.
However, Jim Bair, CEO and president of the U.S. Apple Association acknowledges that the USDA has no authority to deny approval of a biotechnology food when the scientific evidence shows no risk to consumers or the environment. In light of this fact, Mr. Bair says the industry’s “job, then, is not to express support or opposition but to continue to provide calming, accurate information to consumers including the fact that all apples are safe, healthy, and nutritious.”
The apple and potato industries believe the future of the Arctic® apples and the Innate® potato varieties will be decided by consumers and not by regulatory approval. Farmers who grow apples and potatoes are reluctant to plant the GM varieties due to negative public opinion of GM crops.
Another major problem concerns other countries banning American GM products from their markets. Kate Woods, Vice President of the Northwest Horticultural Council (NHC), said the Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry does not have a problem with the science of GM crops – all their concerns are related to marketing and exports. Washington State alone exports 30% of its apple crop to over 60 countries each year – many of which have started to ban GM products from entering their markets. NHC is concerned that countries where the Artic® Apple has not been approved may try to create trade barriers by requiring additional processes to prove that non-GMO apple shipments do not contain GMO apples.
“Farmers should have the ability to utilize technology to improve production and environmental stewardship. The potato industry wants to give consumers what they want – including safe and diverse products at a fair price.” —John Keeling, Executive Vice President and CEO of the National Potato Council.
The Bottom Line:
GMO technology is capable of reducing chemical usage as well as plant and human diseases which benefits farmers, the environment, and consumers alike. However, farmers, highly aware of negative public opinion, have been reluctant to take on the financial risks to grow a new product. Consumers’ choices affect the business decisions of farmers, food manufacturers, and the food industry as a whole, which in turn affects the produce diversity and availability.
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