An apple a day

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

portait of Carolyn Herriot
• When I grew up we had a saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” a reminder that it was healthy to eat fruit. Fast-forward to 2012 and the apple’s image as a healthy, natural food is about to be undermined, with “non-browning” GM apples next up on the list of biotech foods seeking approval.

It seems apple consumption has fallen and the industry considers that eating a whole apple is too much for us these days, claiming that sliced apples are easier for consumption. They are becoming popular as healthy snacks and even McDonalds now includes them in Happy Meals for children. It has also been pointed out that a non-browning trait would help growers, packers and produce stockers, who discard a lot of apples with minor bruising. The “Arctic” apple will be genetically modified to reduce production of polyphenol oxidase – an enzyme responsible for browning – so the apple doesn’t turn brown after being sliced (or bruised). Point of interest: A splash of lemon juice does the same.

According to Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN, www.cban.ca), modified apple DNA will be inserted along with genetic sequences from at least three different species: 1) A regulatory gene switch from a plant virus (Cauliflower mosaic virus promoter: CaMV 35S) 2) A terminator sequence from a bacterium (Agrobacterium tumefaciens) 3) An antibiotic resistance marker gene from a bacterium (Streptomyces kanamyceticus).

Also at issue is where in the apple genome the new gene sequences get inserted, as gene insertions and processes of genetic engineering can cause injuries and disruptions (mutations) within the plants’ own genetic makeup. This question is highly relevant to apple growers because the apple genes to be switched off may also play a significant role in plant resistance and defence against disease and pests.

This concern becomes even more relevant in light of the findings of biochemist Ann Powell and her team from the University of California, who recently pinpointed the genetic mutation responsible for the loss of sweetness in tasteless supermarket tomatoes. Disabling the GLK 2 gene in tomatoes created an unintended consequence: fruit that tastes like cardboard. This is because disabling this gene affected the development of chloroplasts in plant cells, responsible for converting the energy of sunlight into sugar. Tomatoes with the normal level of GLK2 gene were 20 percent sweeter and contained 30 percent more lycopene phytonutrient.

We seem to be living in blissful ignorance of the vital role human nutrition plays in maintaining the body’s primary functions in good working order. The flavour of food is indicative of its nutritive value and when it tastes like cardboard there can be little point in eating it. Today’s statistics for preventable diet-related diseases indicate we have a major problem that centres on the food we are eating. It’s time to go back to eating the way nature intended us to. We must ask biotech companies to stop playing with our food.

The Arctic apple is pending approval in both the US and Canada and will be available first in Golden Delicious and Granny Smith varieties. If this ‘fruit’ gets approved, we may be saying, “An apple a day can be a dangerous thing.”

Carolyn Herriot is author of The Zero-Mile Diet: A Year-round Guide to Growing Organic Food and The Zero-Mile Diet Cookbook: A Seasonal Guide to Delicious Homegrown Food. (September 2012 release, Harbour Publishing.) www.earthfuture.com/gardenpath

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