Oranges: The Next GE Produce?

In last Sunday’s New York Times, an article titled “A Race to Save the Orange By Altering Its DNA” revealed developments in Florida’s citrus industry to create genetically engineered fruit trees in efforts to ward off a bacterial disease known as “citrus greening.”

According to the Times’ account, the disease has already claimed hundreds of trees, and been attributed to a 9 percent decrease in this year’s harvest.  After efforts to halt the spread of the disease through pesticide use and isolation, Florida’s citrus growers have now turned to methods of altering the orange’s DNA for what could be the last hope in saving the country’s citrus industry.

Initial field trials have started in Central Florida, after the company Southern Garden Citrus discovered that they were able to establish resistance to “citrus greening” by inserting a specific gene from spinach into the plants.

While many of us tend to associate genetic engineering with processed foods, the concept of genetically engineered produce is not a new one.  The first GE food on the market was the Flavr Savr tomato, engineered to have a longer shelf life, and was initially popular amongst consumers until the company was sold after suffering from high production costs in the late ’90’s.  Just last year, a small Canadian company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits sought approval from the USDA for a transgenic apple, engineered to keep from browning.  Hawaiian papaya, squash and sweet corn also all have genetically engineered variations in our produce aisles.

Now, with Florida’s struggling citrus industry, we could soon see more GE fruit on supermarket shelves.

Luckily, companies who are pioneering new GE products, like Southern Garden Citrus, are starting to recognize the big fight that they are up against: consumer acceptance.  Thanks to growing consumer support around greater food transparency, and multiple campaigns at the state and national level advocating for mandatory labeling of GE foods, Americans are starting to hold companies accountable for transparency in their products, and politicians are starting to stick up for their constituents.  Both Connecticut and Maine have passed GE labeling legislation this year; Washington State has GE labeling on their ballot this fall; and 11 Senators and 26 Representatives have co-sponsored a bill to require mandatory labeling of GE foods.

In some ways, the industry is reacting.  Just this week, the Biotech Industry Organization published a new website, aimed at answering consumer questions about biotechnology.  “We have not done a very good job of communicating about GMO’s,” according to Cathleen Enright, director of the Council of Biotechnology Information.

However, the companies behind this new website have a history of fighting transparency, investing millions of dollars into defeating labeling campaigns across the country. Last November, California’s labeling initiative, Prop 37, was defeated by a narrow margin after being outspent by these same biotech industry giants, 10 – 1.

With Southern Gardens Citrus aiming to enter the biotech community in a five year timeframe, they have the perfect opportunity to differentiate themselves from their biotech peers with one simple tool: recognizing consumers’ desire to know which foods are genetically engineered, and labeling their GE products.

For many companies, the fight has become worse than the label.  Last fall, thousands of comments, demanding further review and labeling of Okanagan’s genetically engineered apple, were submitted during the USDA’s open comment period. And this spring, more than 2.5 million comments were submitted asking for further review and labels on genetically engineered salmon, which would be the first GE animal to enter the marketplace.

Labeling is not meant to be a warning to consumers; if an ingredient poses a safety hazard, we ban it from our food.  But while the technology is still new, and we don’t know its full effects, the process of genetic engineering should be fully transparent to the American consumer.

The FDA’s most important food statute, the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, establishes that the consumer has a right to know when something is added to food that changes it in ways a consumer would likely not recognize, and thus labeling is required.  For example, the FDA requires labeling of such things as irradiation, juice from concentrate, country of origin, wild vs. farm-raised, and many other mandatory components of food labels, not because they are hazardous, but because these processes were determined to be relevant and material to the consumer.

Florida’s citrus industry has a long road ahead, battling nature’s attacks on monoculture, and seeking the government’s approval of a new technology.  But it still remains to be seen whether they will honor the consumer’s desire for transparency along the way.

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