Over fifteen years before the first nonbrowning Arctic® apple variety was even approved in the U.S. and Canada, my family and I received a rude awakening regarding how big a challenge we had gotten ourselves into. Activists angry about the development of GMO apples had hacked over 650 of our young apple trees down. These particular trees weren’t even genetically engineered, but the activists either didn’t realize or simply didn’t care!
Being involved in agriculture for over three decades, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected from the weather, pests and even people. And, while I’m happy to say the attack on our trees was an isolated incident, it was quite surprising that such hostility and misunderstanding could result from a minor genetic change that’s more precise and efficient than common alternatives relied upon to develop new, beneficial plant traits.
A minor improvement = major benefits (and misinformation)
After travelling around the world as a bioresource engineer, visiting over 50 countries and working on everything from artichokes to zucchini, my family and I settled in British Columbia’s beautiful Okanagan Valley to grow high quality apples in our new family orchard.
We constantly strive to grow better food as sustainably as possible, so learning of a biotech approach to browning-resistant potato varieties in the mid-90s was exciting as I knew the benefits of nonbrowning could be a game changer for the apple industry. Baby carrots were in the midst of doubling carrot sales thanks to their ready-to-eat form, while overall apple consumption had been stagnant for decades. Our industry needed a solution.
Who could possibly oppose a targeted improvement that simply silences an apple’s browning genes, resulting in the same great varieties everyone loves, only more snackable, appealing and with fewer being wasted thanks to the nonbrowning trait?
The road to public and regulatory approval
In the two decades since my wife Louisa and I co-founded Okanagan Specialty Fruits with the help of a couple dozen friends, family members and colleagues in the agriculture industry, we’ve responded to a torrent of misinformation around Arctic® apples and biotech foods. We’ve also navigated the incredibly rigorous U.S. and Canadian regulatory systems, involving years of testing Arctic® apples in field trials, hundreds of pages of data, analysis and multiple public comment periods.
Did I mention our apples are the same in every way other than that they have less of the enzyme that causes oxidative browning and we have a team of fewer than 10 employees?
If you’re wondering, “has it really been worth it?”, you aren’t alone in that thought; I’ve often have it myself. However, despite all of the challenges, any thoughts of abandoning our passion have always been quickly dismissed. After all, the first Arctic® apples are finally about to hit stores to the eager anticipation of many fellow apple-lovers.
It’s more than just that, though; the misunderstandings about biotech foods and the confusion that results demonstrates how important it is to embrace our mission as educators and producers committed to growing healthy, sustainable, high quality foods.
To represent our passion and livelihood, we need to stand up and share our stories and our knowledge. Next week I will be writing more on the importance of vocal champions of agricultural innovation, and share my thoughts on how we can better provide accurate, accessible information about biotech foods.