Harry Burton on why we don’t need a GE apple

Apple Cravings by Harry Burton

(Source COG: http://www.cog.ca/news/55/68/Not-in-My-Lunchbox/)

The first tree of every apple variety grew from a single seed. To create that seed, pollen from another apple variety (the male), landed on the stigma of an apple blossom where it germinated. This fertilization process combines DNA from two apple varieties, so that the apple seed, just like any child born, is different from the parents. Thus, every apple seed that grows produces a TOTALLY NEW APPLE VARIETY.

Supposedly, odds are 1 to 80,000 that an apple seed will create a variety better than that of the parents. This is why apple research centres plant thousands of seeds, and then select the best varieties of all the resulting apple trees. However, if you do wish to create an exact copy of an existing apple tree, then you must graft part of that tree onto another tree in order to produce a vegetative clone.

In many cases, Mother Nature does the entire process of creating the new variety, just as happened with all heritage varieties (every apple variety created before 1900). Somehow, pollen arrived at an apple blossom (usually by way of a bee or insect), fertilizing the flower, the seed fell to the ground, germinated, and a new apple variety grew. These trees were called chance seedlings or also called open pollinated apple variety. If the resulting apple variety was exceptionally good, then humans grafted it over time, so we would continue to have those apples today.

Humans discovered the Gravenstein apple tree in the early 1600’s and it was so good that it was grafted to make exact copies of the tree. This variety was created by Mother Nature, but was leap-frogged forward in time to the present by humans who grafted it

According to Warren Manhart in the book, Apples of the 21st Century, “in 1990, 13 out of 15 of the top commercial apple varieties in the USA are still chance seedlings.” Up until now, even the apple varieties produced by research centres were virtually created by a process of Mother Nature, with a slight intervention by humans. Researchers intervened only to put specific pollen onto the stigma of the blossom, and then isolate the blossom so that no other pollen could fertilize the blossom. By selecting an outstanding pollen parent, the odds of creating a great cultivar improved, so researchers tend to use very desirable varieties to make their crosses. There are some fine new apples created recently by these methods, such as Karmijn de Sonnaville (Holland, 1972), Melrose (Ohio, 1944), NY 429 (New York, 1990’s) and Honey Crisp (Minnesota, 1991).

In the 1990’s, there have even been some great recent chance seedlings such as Poppy’s Wonder, created when a Cox seed was thrown in a compost pile in Victoria, BC and this fabulous apple tree resulted. Another is the Ambrosia, which was a chance seedling found growing in Keremeos, BC. The apple pickers in the orchard would always eat these apples before any other in the orchard. Any apple that pickers like must be a good apple, so you could say it was the “pickers favourite”.

A recent sharp diversion from this natural creation process is genetic modification (GM), which allows new genes to be inserted into the apple gene, in order to bring some new attribute to the apple. The most recent manipulation creates an apple which will not brown. Not only is the process of inserting a gene into an apple, a very inexact process, there also is NO PROOF that there will not be harmful effects in the future. There has been no long term testing of GM products, and in my opinion, no one can guarantee there will never be any unintentional long-term impacts. It is also a sad testament that although over 90% of Canadians want mandatory GM labels, the Canadian Government turns a blind eye in favour of corporate profits. As a result, I would never knowingly eat any GM products, since I do not trust any part of the process.

What I do know is apples, really good apples.

Give me an organic apple, because I don’t want to eat man-made chemicals, and conventional apples are considered number one on the DIRTY DOZEN produce list for most highly contaminated with agricultural residues. The first sprays are hitting conventional apples, just as the buds are breaking–no thank you. In our orchard, we use no man-made chemicals, nothing artificial, just the processes of Mother Nature. It is magical–while the orchardist might work 12 hours a day, Mother Nature is working 24 hours a day performing processes as intricate as symphonies, to bring that apple to perfection on that anticipated day when it is ripe

Give me ugly apples, because many of the ugliest apples, such as Cox Orange Pippins, are also the best tasting. Our society is so focused on looks, that we will reject apples which are not red and pretty, without even tasting them. Ugly apples do not sell well in stores, as most people have been brainwashed to want a big shiny red apple. Well here is a paradox–your big shiny red apple, such as Red Delicious, will never taste as good as my Cox Orange Pippins.

Give me an apple with russeting and some apple scab. Apple scab (a leather like mark on the apple skin) is the apple’s reaction to fungus and is a common occurrence on the coast, where we have cool, wet, fungus-loving springs, and cool summer nights. But Mother Nature added a health bonus to scabby apples– When apples are exposed to fungus, they must fight back, and one of resulting byproducts created in the apple is SALVESTROL, which becomes a cancer-fighting agent for humans. The healthiest apples for you are ones that have to fight to survive. People in rural communities, and savvy shoppers, recognize apple scab as a sign that the apples were grown organically. It is as good as any organic certification. Scabby apples would not sell in a commercial grocery store, but will sell in a farmer’s market, where the grower is present. Another paradox is that people will pick a scabby apple off a tree and eat it, despite what it looks like, but would never buy that same apple in a store. We expect store apples to be flawless.

Give me an apple that nature loves. In our orchard, we watch the woodpeckers and try not to scare them away from tasting the apples. We record the varieties they choose to eat, as they are reliable unpaid apple tasters. Gravenstein, Cox, Karamijn, and Northern Spy are their perennial favourites, just as they are mine. Woodpeckers do not eat mediocre apples, especially since they have the choice of 200 varieties here at Apple Luscious Organic Orchard. Watch this phenomenon YouTube. You will find it at around 2:22.

Give me a red flesh apple–the real apples of the future. These apples are spectacular, not only in looks but also in taste. And to top that off they all cook up red in a pie. Red apples are packed with extra antioxidants, since the red colour comes from anthocyanins, a type of flavonoid. Everyone who eats them lets out a big sigh upon first bite. We grow at least 25 red flesh varieties at Apple Luscious and are evaluating a few more. Many were created by my apple-breeding hero, Albert Etter, who in the 1930’s was breeding at least 30 varieties of red flesh apples in the coastal mountains of Northern California. For a great article about red flesh apples and Albert Etter, check out this link.

Give me diversity. Every year Salt Spring Island, which was once the apple growing capital of BC, holds an Apple Festival. Three hundred varieties are on display, judged, savoured, and celebrated by the community. It’s a sight of pure joy to anyone who celebrates food diversity and self-sufficiency. Watch this time lapse video of the set-up to see for yourself. Better yet, come see for yourself on September 30th.

I say, “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food” and demand the best for yourself, your family and your farmers.

 -Harry Burton, organic grower and COG supporter

To take action and voice your opinion on GM apples, visit CBAN and find out how: http://www.cban.ca/apple

One response to “Harry Burton on why we don’t need a GE apple

  1. Organic apples taste much better than “chemical” apples. We may safely assume that GM apples would taste even worse than do “chemical” apples. And, of course, the safety of consuming them would be substantially compromised.

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