If you walk down the aisles of a grocery store such as Whole Foods or another like-minded health food store, much of the produce and packaged foods will sport labels saying “Non-GMO.” Non-GMO means that a food or a product’s ingredients do not include genetically modified organisms. Along with labels such as “fat-free,” “low-sugar” or “organic,” foods that are non-GMO draw in customers who are trying to eat more healthily or be environmentally conscious. While these genetically modified foods carry with them a negative connotation in a society where eating natural, wholesome foods is all the rage, in reality they may not be so bad after all in certain cases.
Last Friday, the U.S. Government approved Okanagan Specialty Fruits to plant genetically engineered apples that are resistant to browning and bruising. This decision is causing much controversy because in addition to the health risks that people think come along with genetically modified foods, executives in the apple industry are worried that this development could hurt apple exports. (The New York Times, “Gene-Altered Apples Get U.S. Approval”, 2.13.15)
This concern is valid because of the large stigma that genetically modified foods in general carry. Americans are constantly reminded to stay away from packaged and processed foods and instead stick to whole, fresh fruits and vegetables. Because many mass-produced processed junk foods contain genetically modified plants such as corn or soy, many people believe that all genetically modified foods are therefore unhealthy to eat or less healthy than non-GM foods.
However, for these genetically modified apples, called Arctic Apples, in particular may have many positive aspects. These apples, which will come in the Granny Smith and Golden Delicious categories, may motivate people to choose a healthy snack over an unhealthy one and companies to make them more readily available.
For example, school cafeterias today are less likely to offer fresh produce because its difficult to keep fresh for long periods of time, unlike processed and packaged snacks. If fruits and vegetables like the Arctic Apples, which are resistant to turning brown, become more common, companies will be more inclined to offer them to their customers, which ultimately brings them ever-closer to ending up on our plates.
On the other side of the equation, consumers could become more willing to pay for fresh fruit if it will last longer before rotting. If a parent has to buy food on a budget for several kids, they are more likely to choose foods that are durable and won’t go bad in just a few days. One of the reasons chips, cookies and similar snacks are so popular is because they won’t expire when left unopened for months at a time, eliminating the risk of a food expiring before it is consumed and wasting precious family funds.
Many people have seen images on the TV and online that feature a photo of a fast food burger right after it is made alongside a photo of that same burger a few weeks later. The idea is to emphasize all the preservatives in the burger and how processed it must be if it doesn’t decompose much at all. Artic apples will eventually rot and turn brown, but it will take much longer than for a non-genetically modified apple.
Despite this, an apple that is branded as “non-browning” may evoke that image of a fast food burger in the mind of consumers, making the apple appear as unhealthy to eat as the burger that appears fresh for weeks on end.
In November 2014, a breed of potato called the Innate Potato was genetically modified “so that less of a chemical called acrylamide, which is suspected of causing cancer in people, is produced when the potato is fried.” (The New York Times, “U.S.D.A. Approves Modified Potato. Next Up: French Fry Fans”, 11.7.14) The Food and Drug Administration says that acrylamide levels are 50 to 75 percent lower when Innate Potatoes are fried, but as of right now, the effects of the chemical have only been tested in rodents. These potatoes will come in the breeds of Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic, and it is still unclear whether restaurants and fast food chains will incorporate them into their kitchens. When genetically modified potatoes were proposed to companies in the past, for reasons such as resisting insects to improve survivability, they were more or less widely rejected.
In the case of both the Arctic Apple and the Innate Potato, the organism’s own genes are altered, rather than adding genes from other organisms, which is the case for many genetically modified organisms. This important detail will hopefully guide consumers to see these products in a more positive light, as many associated GMOs with those that add genes from other organisms to add new qualities. The apple in this case is still just an apple and the potato is still just a potato, but with added improvements from within the plant’s own DNA.
Some genetically modified organisms can have very harmful effects, such as damaging cross-pollination effects, increasing herbicide usage and political ramifications. (Institute for Responsible Technology, “10 Reasons to Avoid GMOs”) It is important that consumers recognize that these effects cannot be generalized to include all genetically modified organisms.
If alterations are made in an eco-friendly way with consumer health benefits in mind, genetic modification can be an efficient and healthy practice. Gene alterations in fruits and vegetables are still in their very early stages, partly due to the stigma the GMO foods carry, but advancements could include benefits in terms of health and convenience for consumers in the future.
—Sarah Sandler ’18 is a student at Vassar College.