s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 24 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 24   (Winter 2001)

How the Biotech Fruit Trees Were Stopped

by Andy Zimmerman, Green Party of New York State

The Okanagan Valley is an important fruit growing region of British Columbia in Canada. At the Canadian Government's Summerland agricultural research station, scientists have genetically altered fruit trees so that the fruit doesn't turn brown when exposed to oxygen, using a patent controlled by a company called Okanagan Biotechnology. But planned field trials of the trees have now been called off.

Linda Edwards (ledwards@keremeos.com) an organic apple grower, has led the effort to prevent the introduction of the biotech trees into the Okanagan ecosystem. We asked her to tell us her success story.

Q. What has been going on at the research station?

A local man who is an agricultural engineering consultant got the patent on a gene that would stop fruit from turning brown. It came from a big government-funded research conglomerate in Australia. He got the rights for North America.

They were growing the trees in greenhouses, and doing the molecular work We realized that they were about ready to do field trials. And we knew that, because bees move pollen around, there could be genetic contamination.

Q. Why would anybody want non-browning fruit?

A lot of it would have gone for processing. You would go to a salad bar, and there would be apple slices that would be sitting there all day and they wouldn't turn brown. Or you could make apple sauce that didn't turn brown. Institutional uses of apples.

They said, "As a farmer, you should be happy. If they get bruised when you pick them, they won't turn brown." We said, "Yes, but the bruise is still there. The texture has been destroyed. It's a soft apple."

For cherries, it was to keep the stems from turning brown. When you look at a cherry, if the stem has turned brown, it doesn't look fresh. If the stem is green, it looks fresh.

Any good cherry grower can grow a cherry whose stem will not turn brown before the fruit rots. So this would help the bad cherry growers.

Any good cherry grower can grow a cherry whose stem will not turn brown before the fruit rots. So this would help the bad cherry growers. You'd have a cherry that nobody would want to eat, but the stem would be nice and fresh. It would look a lot better than it would taste.

Q. What were your concerns about the field trials?

Many of us have strong feelings about the effects of genetically modified organisms on the environment and health. We knew that that wasn't something everybody agreed with. But we did know one thing for sure. As farmers, the first thing we have to do is make a living, or we're not farmers.

We would lose our markets, period. If you're organic, and you have any GMO contamination, you're no longer organic.

And it wouldn't just be organics. The conventional cherry industry is a big one in our area. And England and Europe are big markets for conventional cherries. So that industry was threatened as well.

The bottom line was, organic growers would be decertified, and if they have genetically engineered orchards nearby they could not be organic. And conventional growers would lose markets.

Q. What effect has biotech agriculture already had on farmers?

I have a cousin who was growing organic canola in Saskatchewan. When the Roundup Ready canola came in, all my cousin's neighbors bought into it, because it sounded like a good idea. The prairie farmers—and I understand it's the same in the US Midwest—are in a pretty desperate situation.

Try to find organic canola oil now. What little is produced goes to very lucrative markets overseas. The organic canola growers are getting up to ten times what the conventional guys are.

...organic growers would be decertified, and if they have genetically engineered orchards nearby they could not be organic.

But you can't grow it if you're within bee range of Roundup Ready. Any organic canola grower in Saskatchewan who is within four kilometers of a GMO field can't take the chance because it'll probably be contaminated. My cousin can no longer do it. Because of the cross-pollination, he lost his market.

Q. How did you stop the field trials?

We found out it was the federal government that gave permits to do field trials, but the provincial government could advise on them. And so we wrote to our provincial minister of agriculture and asked him to look into it. And then we had a meeting with the people from the research station and the company.

Now keep in mind that the man who owns the company is a local man. He was a friend. The people at the station, these were our friends and neighbors.

And although relationships a year later are still a bit strained, none of us have stopped talking to each other. They were not happy with us, we know that. But we worked very hard not to make it an enemy thing.

Before the meeting, I invited out the head of the research station, the main scientist on the job, another scientist, and somebody from the provincial government. I said, "I want to show you how big and successful the organic industry is." Ten years ago, organic tree fruits in our area was five acres of run-down trees. Now there's 50 or 60 hundred-acre people who are growing fruit that's equal to or better than conventional, and doing much better than conventional growers.

I drove them around for three hours, and showed them these orchards, and introduced them to orchardists. And then I fed them a big spaghetti dinner, and I took them to the meeting.

I think they were surprised how many people came to the meeting, how strongly people felt. We said, "We will do whatever we legally can do to stop this." Several people went home and phoned their lawyers and had them write letters saying, "If I ever lose my markets over this, I will sue you."

That same week they got a letter from the provincial ministry of agriculture, saying, "There will be markets that will be threatened."

So all in all, these things came together. And the research station made the decision not to do field trials. In fact, they put it in writing. They won't do them until there's consumer acceptance and local acceptance.

We were amazed how easy it was. We were prepared to dig in for a much longer time.

The only farmers making any money off GMOs have been those who are growing non-GMO stuff and can prove it.

They live here too. They didn't want to go through another meeting with 60 people telling them, "You're going to wreck our livelihoods."

Q. What if somebody else wants to grow genetically engineered crops in your area?

Our biggest threat is the United States. Some of our orchardists buy trees from the US. And if you get some real hot variety down there that's genetically engineered, some farmer up here might buy it.

The main thing we organic growers have to do is to keep working with the conventional industry. Our local grape growers association said that they would not do anything that is genetically engineered. And the vegetable growers are thinking about it.

Q. Would you support a GMO-free British Columbia?

We see the power being in the food producers making that decision, and then telling the politicians. Because in our valley, if the majority of farmers, conventional and organic, said this is what we want, we'd get it.

Q. What about marketing crops as GMO-free?

It's being done in the world. Brazil, for example, is doing extremely well because they've got non-GMO soybeans, and they market that. They're getting into Japan, and they're getting into Europe. Australia has done that in some areas with canola.

The only farmers making any money off GMOs have been those who are growing non-GMO stuff and can prove it. It certainly didn't hurt our market. It's helped us a lot.

The Genetic Engineering Action Network, USA, exists to support and further the work of those organizations and individuals working to address the risks to the environment, biodiversity and human health, as well as the socioeconomic and ethical consequences of genetic engineering. National Co-ordinator: Renske van Staveren, rvanstaveren@iatp.org

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | Synthesis/Regeneration 24 Contents