A Bummer Crop of Apples

Okanagan Specialty Fruits is trying to bring to market a genetically engineered apple called the Arctic apple. With all the varieties of cultivated apples available, you might wonder why a company would invest in a genetically modified apple? The Arctic Apple doesn’t turn brown after it is sliced, and Okanagan is hoping that food service companies will demand the product. The New York Times reports that “the U.S. Apple Association, which represents the American apple industry, opposes introduction of the product, as do some other industry organizations. They say that, while they do not believe that the genetic engineering is dangerous, it could undermine the fruit’s image as a healthy and natural food.”

It would be more effective if the U.S. Apple Association joined the consumer movement that is demanding that genetically modified foods be labeled.  There is no need for endless debates about safety of these foods—if there is a GMO label for consumers to read. Importantly, food products or food ingredients that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) do not have to be labeled in the United States.

Proper labeling gives consumers freedom to make informed choices. There is likely to be little demand for sliced apples that can’t turn brown from consumers who do not want to consume GMO foods. At the same time, other consumers may prefer to purchase these same GMO foods because genetically modified ingredients are often less expensive.

This past spring I was having lunch with a colleague from Bangladesh. I asked him about the price of rice in Bangladesh. He replied that it was about a $1 a pound. I asked him if the government subsidized the purchase of rice; the response was no. Although I have long been aware of the conditions that the world’s poor live under, his reply hit me viscerally. I followed with in a question, hoping there was something I didn’t understand: “Then, many in your country can’t afford rice and go hungry?” “Yes,” my colleague replied, “I don’t know how they survive. The primary focus of their day is to obtain food to feed their family.”

It goes without saying that meat is a rare luxury, and vegetables are not an everyday food for the poor in Bangladesh. Diseases that are easily preventable are prevalent because vitamins are lacking in a poor person’s diet.

For example, many in the developing world suffer from illnesses and blindness related to easily preventable Vitamin A deficiency. According to Matt Ridley, a deficiency of vitamin A “probably causes more deaths than malaria, HIV or tuberculosis.”

Of course, a deficiency of vitamin A is easily preventable by a simple dietary vitamin supplement—but there is an even cheaper alternative. More importantly, this alternative is more likely to be part of a traditional diet consumed by those who need it the most: this alternative is “Golden Rice.”

Swiss geneticist Ingo Potrykus and his colleague Peter Beyer desire to help the poor in countries, such as Bangladesh, where rice is a staple food. They have developed a genetically modified form of rice called “Golden Rice;” it has two extra genes to make beta-carotene to provide needed Vitamin A. These geneticists waived patent rights so that “Golden Rice” can be given away for free and grown for free.

Yet, according to Ridley, fourteen years later, “Golden Rice” has not been distributed because of opposition to genetically modified foods. Opponents portray these foods as dangerous and best avoided. Proponents believe that these foods are safe and help to reduce food costs. Indeed, as the case of Golden Rice shows, GMOs can be potentially life-saving.

This is no paradox. Rising standards of living allow many in the Western world to voluntarily eschew GMOs and, at the same time, eat better than did kings even a few centuries ago.

Due to my food preferences (some might say food neuroses), I avoid eating genetically modified ingredients by buying mostly organic foods and eating few processed foods. My income level allows me to indulge my belief that GMOs are best avoided. The diet I eat today, as an adult, bears almost no resemblance to the diet I ate as a child. A virtual cornucopia of fresh produce now graces my table; whole grains, beans, and fresh vegetables and fruits have taken the place of processed food.

The revelation, this spring, that Kashi cereal and snack products contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) helps us reflect on a commonly held, naïve belief that regulatory agencies prevent firms from harming consumers. Some imagine a world where firms (motivated by greed) sell unsafe products and government regulators (motivated by public service) protect them.

Kashi, which purports to make natural cereal and snack products, was exposed for using genetically modified ingredients in their products. Incensed consumers and store owners began to boycott Kashi products; the Kashi brand name suffered significant harm.

To be sure, a poor Bangladeshi would find the Kashi controversy unfathomable; equally incomprehensible would be how someone owning a 2000 sq. ft. modern home in America would obsess over which shade of beige to paint his dining room. Rising incomes allow us to be more concerned about the quality and aesthetics of what we consume. This is nothing to be ashamed about.

What the case of Kashi cereal demonstrates is that GMOs are not easily avoided. Consumers may buy a product labeled as all natural, but yet it may be full of GMO ingredients. The Cornucopia Institute found that popular Kashi cereals, such as Go Lean, contain high amounts of GMOs. Consumers have reasonable expectations that products labeled as natural and advertised as healthy contain ingredients that reflect those labels. For many consumers, genetically modified ingredients are not equivalent to ingredients that are not genetically modified. Thus, if packaging does not convey this information, many consumers eat more genetically modified ingredients then they would choose if packages were labeled.

Food producers who are proponents of genetically modified foods often act as aggressors by not having their ingredients undergo independent safety assessments and then including GMO ingredients in foods without proper labeling. Their aggression is backed up by Federal regulatory agencies.

Government does not require the listing of genetically modified ingredients on food packages. Indeed, government, beholden to industry interests, actively resists proper food labeling. Consider rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone), a GMO engineered variant of the natural growth hormone produced by cows. If dairy food producers label their products as rBGH free, the government requires a disclaimer on the packaging to inaccurately claim “no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBGH supplemented and non-rBGH supplemented cows.”

“No significant differences” is only accurate in the eyes of companies like the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly who sells the ingredient. rBGH milk can be  contaminated by pus, due to the mastitis commonly induced by rBGH, and by antibiotics used to treat the mastitis. There are other significant differences.

Whether my beliefs, or your beliefs about rBGH, about the Arctic Apple and other GMOs are true or false is not the point. Genetically modified foods can peacefully coexist with other food with proper labeling. Accurate labeling allows individual consumers to make their own determination based on their own fact finding, their values, and their tastes. Proper labeling protects consumer sovereignty against aggression by industrial food interests and the questionable motives of the government regulators who protect them.

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