When I was growing up in the Okanagan, we used to visit the Summerland Research Station. They had a cow with a glass stomach there. I kid you not. In addition to turning cows into circus acts, the scientists developed plants that were adaptable to local conditions. But in the mid 1990s, they abdicated their role as seed researchers and preservers to big business. They closed some of their agricultural stations across the country and two of the most important gene banks.
The Canadian government still funds nineteen research stations across the country, including the one in Summerland, now called the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre. I’ve walked through their beautiful native plant garden in recent years. I had heard they were doing a lot of work with genetic modification, but I must admit I was shocked to hear that they are partnering with a biotech company, innocuously named Okanagan Specialty Fruits, to engineer an apple that won’t brown after cutting. The Arctic apple as it is called, presumably to emphasize its perpetual whiteness, is a whole new circus trick. The technology suppresses a gene in the fruit that controls the enzyme (a polyphenol) that induces browning. No foreign DNA has been introduced, so no fish or scorpions this time.
While browsing the Okanagan Specialty Fruits web site, I learned it’s not just apples they are collaborating on with the research station. They are working with them to harness “the latest advancements in biotechnology to produce new tree fruit varieties.” The Okanagan has over 800 local growers of pears, cherries, apricots, peaches, prune plums and nectarines, as well as grapes and blueberries, so a lot of harnessing potential there. The site emphasizes the company’s strong industry and government partnerships.
The biotech company says they are filling a need because fresh slices have become a hot item in children’s lunch boxes. They mean the pre-packaged store bought slices, not the slices mom can cut at home and sprinkle with lemon juice to keep them from browning in the Tupperware. And what exactly is the problem with eating an apple whole?
We could question the ludicrousness of inventing such a thing, but in this prime apple growing region, shouldn’t there be grave concerns about cross-pollination? After fourteen years of field trials with genetically modified organisms, we know that is a reality. It has put entire sectors at risk. Canadian flax for example is now contaminated with Triffid, even though the GM seed was deregistered and ordered destroyed in 2001 because of the wary European market. Triffid had a weed gene added to it that allowed it to grow in herbicide-drenched soil. All Canadian shipments to Europe are now stopped. The Europeans buy seventy percent of our flax, so a $320 million industry is potentially destroyed.
Okanagan Specialty Fruits is seeking approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for domestic growing and marketing of the apple. But it seems that the Arctic is getting a chilly response from US growers and shippers. It can take years for a product to be approved and even then, there are other mountains to climb, including a frigid public reception. It makes my teeth chatter just to think about it.