Green scientist fact checked on “Arctic apple” concerns

A commentary published on Live Science last month has earned a response related to a genetically modified product nick-named the Arctic apple. The initial issues related about the apple were raised by Dr. Margaret Mellon of the Center for Food Safety and formerly of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Both organizations are environmentalist-oriented, non-profit groups that oppose bio tech or GMO foods claiming they are bad for the environment and human health. In her essay, Dr. Mellon called into question the safety of the apple in question due to gene splicing involving manipulating RNA molecules in the process of producing it.

Dr. Mellon’s claims prompted a response from agricultural scientist Dr. Steven Savage on Science 2.0 in which he called Dr. Mellon’s op-ed misleading. In his response, Dr. Savage states:

To begin with, in what seems like an appeal to anti-corporate feelings, Dr. Mellon describes the Arctic® apple as having been developed “by a Canadian Corporation.” In fact, the developer is Okanagan Specialty Fruit (OSF), a tiny, grower-centered organization with fewer than 8 employees.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a vastly larger and better funded organization (see page 9). OSF has been slowly and patiently navigating the technical and regulatory obstacle course that is required to bring a biotech crop product to the market – something I never imagined would be possible by such a small company.

The other misleading part of Dr. Mellon’s article is her assertion that the RNAi in a product like the Arctic® apple represents some new element of risk in the food supply. This is wrong on several levels. First of all this class of technology is not new in the sense that there are already several commercial, biotech crops which employ the RNAi mechanism. The virus resistant papaya that saved the industry in Hawaii and a virus resistant squash that has been on the market for 15 years are existing examples. Soybeans with improved oil content have also recently been commercialized and those traits were accomplished using RNAi. There are many other promising traits that can be accomplished using the RNAi approach.

But as I explained above, RNAi is definitely not new to the food supply because it is a natural mechanism which exists across all sorts of different plants and animals. It is one of the important ways that genes are regulated in the process of development and in the different functions performed by different tissues throughout an organism. When we eat foods based on plants or animals, we are eating a huge number of different RNA molecules that function by the process we call RNAi. Just to be really clear, if you eat an organic, heirloom, locally grown fruit or vegetable or a range-fed or wild-caught animal, you are consuming small RNAs similar to those that happen to be involved in the non-browning apple.

Your pre-historic ancestors were eating them as well. There is no reason to believe that an RNA that interacts with a gene for a browning enzyme would be somehow different so that it would represent a greater risk than the thousands of other small RNAs in our diets.

You can read the response in it’s entirety here.

At every turn, the anti-GMO wing of the environmentalist movement has been proven wrong on every one of their claims. It does not mean they will stop, but my concern is that they could resort to sabotage or some sort of intimidation methods involving physical damage to laboratories involved in biotechnological food research down the line. Their efforts to ban genetically modified foods have not been entirely successful. Though green groups were able to convince countries overseas to ban or severely regulate their cultivation, anti-GMO efforts in the US, fortunately, have not been successful.

Violence and intimidation to halt GMO production is not out of the realm of possibility. Last year, Greenpeace was able to disseminate enough lies about golden rice which prompted a communist group to raid and destroy golden rice crop at a GMO research facility in the Philippines. For now, responding and refuting misleading articles about bio tech crops is a good idea. But if ideological groups like Center for Food Safety and Union of Concerned Scientists can’t win when it comes to public opinion, violence and destruction maybe their plan B.