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Okanagan GMO apple grower hopes Health Canada bites

Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits said genetically modified apples have been taken to Health Canada seeking approval for commercial planting. - Western News file photo
Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits said genetically modified apples have been taken to Health Canada seeking approval for commercial planting.
— image credit: Western News file photo

Apples naturally go brown over time once they are cut. But one Okanagan company says it doesn’t have to be that way.

Okanagan Specialty Fruits is a privately owned biotech company which has been using “advanced molecular biology tools” to switch off the gene that controls the enzyme that turns the white flesh of apples brown after being exposed to the air. Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, said it isn’t a huge modification; they are not adding any foreign genes to the apple, only turning off a single enzyme.

After several years of development and testing, Carter said the apples are ready for introduction, and they have taken their Arctic apples to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada seeking approval for unconfined environmental release for commercial planting purposes and other uses.

But long before approval, which Carter said may take as long as 30 months, they are facing stiff opposition from B.C. growers, who fear the introduction of genetically-modified fruit will harm the province’s reputation as a supplier of high quality fruit. While he extolls the benefit of non-browning apples — to growers, packing houses, retailers and consumers like the fresh-cut food sector — other growers aren’t so sure there is a need for the product, especially considering the possible backlash.

“People have been eating apples for a long time and haven’t had an issue with them going brown,” said Kirpal Boparai, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association. And, he said, there is already an apple on the market that doesn’t go brown quickly. Ambrosia, a naturally-occurring crossbreed, shares that characteristic.

Apples have a reputation of being pure and healthy,  belonging to the same category as milk, according to Glen Lucas, BCFGA general manager. He recalls the backlash when a large milk producer and distributor began experimenting with genetically modified hormones being given to dairy cows.

“We’ve seen this happen before,  we don’t have to imagine,” said Lucas. The BCFGA has responded with two resolutions, one in January 2011 opposing the introduction of genetically-modified fruit and another this past January, advocating the mandatory labelling of genetically modified fruit.

It’s a stance the B.C. government takes seriously, according to Minister of Agriculture Don McRae. While the apples are currently under review by federal agencies, B.C. citizens will have a chance to comment.

“Whether we are trying to sell domestically or internationally, its  important that this region has the reputation it has today going forward,” said McRae. “Whether we are arguing for it or against it, we want to make sure we have the information first and make sure our argument is as solid as possible. We definitely look to people like the tree fruit growers to get their stance.”

Joe Sardinha, a Summerland apple grower and past-president of the BCFGA, takes exception to the federal government stance that the apples will be evaluated from a science-based approach. That’s not enough, he said.

“You’ve got to look at the economics. If the potential is there to ruin markets and turn consumers off our products, you have to look at that too. It goes beyond the science. There is a serious issue of market backlash,” said Sardinha. “From our perspective, we have made it most clear that we are worried about the market repercussions and implications of introducing genetically modified anything into this valley.”

“The opposition is vocal and the people who like it don’t say much,” said Carter, who recognizes the BCFGA concerns but feels they may be out of proportion.

“I am a grower, I don’t want to negatively affect the market,” said Carter, adding that he plans to introduce the apples slowly. “We want to dip our toe in with the Arctic apple. We’re not talking thousands of acres, we’re talking tens of acres.”

Surveys conducted by Okanagan Specialty Fruits show that consumers desire non-browning apples and aren’t concerned about the genetic-modification. According to their online survey, most respondents would be interested in purchasing the apples, even after learning about how they were created.

And, Carter continued, the modified apples are more healthy. The browning, he explains, is indicative of a breakdown process in the apple consuming vitamin C and anti-oxidants. By turning off the enzyme that causes browning, all the nutrition stays.

“Not only are we preventing browning, we are preserving nutrition,” he said. “It actually makes it more nutritious. We’re preserving the good stuff.“

Currently, the CFIA is collecting public input on the Arctic Apple submission, which can be found at www.inspection.gc.ca.

Lucas said the BCFGA has responded to the Arctic apple submission on behalf of the growers, but is encouraging individual growers and consumers to respond as well. The public input portion of the evaluation process continues until July 3, and the original submission can be found at www.inspection.gc.ca.

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