I walked into the gleaming ‘Orchard in a box”, a closed greenhouse where no pollen can flow outside. The apple was red, red, red inside and out and I wanted it. But because I was in New Zealand, where experimenting with genetically engineered food is highly regulated, tasting was banned.

How was this forbidden fruit created? By overexpression of an apple transcription factor in the white-fleshed, tasty Royal Gala variety. The transcription factor was isolated from an apple that has both red flesh and red skin, that occurs in Central Asia. However, these apples are normally quite bitter tasting so some genetic manipulation was needed to create a new variety that was red but had good flavor.

The GE apple carries at least 5000x more anthocyanins than the Royal Gala. The work was led by Andrew Allan at Plant & Food Research, a non-profit research institute in New Zealand. Richard Espley, a molecular biologist at Plant & Food Research, was named one of the MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year for his work in apple genetics. The Plant and Food scientists are also trying to develop a red-fruited Royal Gala using marker assisted breeding but do not yet have a commercially viable product.

Take a look at this great video describing their work:

By the way, if I had not been able to resist temptation, and had bit into the apple (without approval from ERMA, the Regulatory Authority) then I would have faced prison and/or a personal fine of $500,000 and the Institute would have been fined $10 million. The researchers did attempt to get permission but after two years of waiting and application costs of around $18,000, they gave up and flew to California (known widely for our permissive culture) for a taste-testing instead. The result? The apples were delicious and the researchers survived to tell the tale.

While in New Zealand, I also gave a public lecture at the Royal Society in Wellington. I spoke about the science behind seed development (GE, marker assisted breeding, mutageneis, hybridization etc) and made the point, which every farmer knows well, that seed is only part of the story. Farming practices are equally important, especially when it comes to caring for the land and reducing loss to insects and disease. I included examples from the US where GE has enhanced goals of sustainable agriculture (BT cotton, GE papayas, etc). I received many good questions including:

Can insect evolve resistance to BT? (answer: yes they can evolve resistance to both sprayed BT and genetically engineered BT. In both cases integrated pest management approaches are critical to delay resistance).

Does GE interfere with a farmer’s ability to manage a complex farm ecosystem? (Answer: yes if he/she relies only on the seed and ignores farming practices).

Do the high regulatory costs prevent growers in NZ from accessing the technology? (answer: yes. Regulatory costs are so high that it is difficult for breeders working in the public domain on small acreage crops to commercialize new varieties).

Is Bt cotton safe for the environment (answer: yes. Scientific reviews over 50 years of use have concluded that Bt is safe for the environment and human health. Organic growers have been using it for 50 years with no ill-effects).

How can you be sure that GE cotton reduces insecticide use? (answer: Because growers use fewer synthetic insecticides. This has been extensively documented in the scientific literature).

A few audience members were not pleased with my presentation and said so very often and very loudly until the moderator intervened and asked them to sit down so others could ask questions. More on this below the fold.

You can hear more about genetics and sustainable agriculture by tuning into my interview with Kim Hill of Radio New Zealand. This was one of the most fun interviews I have ever done- Kim has tremendous energy, fantastic facial expressions and asks good questions.

If you cannot get enough of this debate. you can also check out my interview with the US Ambassador, read articles published in the New Zealand Herald and in the Dominion Post. There were a few letters to the editor, too.

And for a more amusing take on the subject check out this article, which suggests Raoul and I are as odd a couple as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison.

On the visit, I learned a lot about how talented NZ scientists are innovating to advance the sustainability of their own farming systems. Pastoral genomics, a New Zealand research consortium for forage genetics, has developed drought tolerant rye grass (85% of the pasture land is NZ is seeded with a mixture of ryegrass and clover). Planting of this GE grass is predicted to extend the grazing season a few more weeks. This would reduce the use of supplemental palm kernel feed. (Full disclosure my trip was sponsored by Pastoral genomics).

It seems enhanced nitrogen use efficiency would also be quite useful for sheep farmers. Now, many New Zealanders use quite a bit of synthetic fertilizer which runs off into streams. Any reduction would enhance the sustainability of the grazing system, an important component of NZ agriculture.

There are also insects and diseases infecting potatoes (psyllid), clover (clover root weevil, grass grub and clover mosaic virus) and kiwi fruits (Pseudomonas) that are currently difficult to control that are subject of scientific investigation.


My talk in Wellington included the idea that GE crops could be useful for enhancing agricultural sustainability for some farmers in some countries in some instances (eg. my examples included GE papaya and GE cotton). This fairly benign statement led to a press release suggesting that I was a stealth agent of the US government and had been “internationally discredited”. For proof, you need only look at Wikileaks.

Who knew?

In response to their strangely jumbled press release, they received several comments on their blog:

“I too was at Professor Ronald’s presentation yesterday and thought her message was clear – that the focus should be on the outcome we are trying to achieve in terms of sustainability and that, once we have defined that, THEN lets look at the tools at our disposal to achieve this. These ‘tools’ could be from organics, conventional or from new technologies such as GE – or a combination.

Her other message (which she made repeatedly) was that when debating the use of technologies you have to be very specific about what plant or growing system you’re talking about. To say ‘GE is bad’ or ‘organics won’t produce enough to feed the world’ is all too easy – and wrong. GE cotton has allowed for the halving of pesticide use for that crop – and some organic crops are highly productive.

What was clear is that those purporting to represent the organic industries in the room found this fairly balanced suggestion difficult to accept. I felt their philosophical blinkers were well and truly in place. This was a pity as one of Prof Ronald’s other messages was that to create truly sustainable agriculture all parties have to come to the table and talk.

And lastly Professor Ronald is married to Raoul Adamchak – a long time organic farmer and teacher of organic production at Davis University in California – who co-authored the book ‘Tomorrow’s Table’. It’s worth a read as it sets out far more clearly than this comment or Mr Brownings comments above, what Prof Ronald and Raoul Adamchak are trying to say… ”

And here is another Anonymous comment:

“It seems strange to me that Mr Browning above, speaking for Soil & Health – Organic NZ and it seems for everyone in New Zealand with an interest in organics could be so closed minded.

These seem to be reasonable and rational points to discuss – i.e. what is the best approach and maybe it is not simply one or the other – at least discussing it rather than sticking our heads in the sand might achieve some common understanding. It was good to see that the Royal Society was open minded enough to invite all sides of the spectrum for the discussion.

Born a few thousand years ago Mr Browning probably would have also spoken out against traditional hybrids and cross pollination of plants too and possibly the advances of medical science and the notion that the world was round and not flat!”

Thank you, anonymous commenters, for setting the record straight.

Comments

  1. #1 August Pamplona
    October 24, 2012

    How is this apple genetically engineered? The video seems to be describing marker assisted breeding, not genetic engineering.

  2. #2 ralph lawrence
    New Zealand
    September 25, 2012

    I assume that some folks confuse genetic manipulation and selective breeding which have been going on for centuries, with genetic engineering. I would make no apologies for an emotive response considering such a response as valid as any based on science. From much of the literature I have read, there is little or any basis for the notion that GE can feed a hungry world, nor that it is in any way superior to the slow and considered evolution of food science. That the elements used in control of pests and diseases evolving alongside GE maize and soya in many countries actually lead to the development of hitherto un-described insect mutations, that CCD or colony collapse in honeybees has been tagged to the effects of GE on pollen, and that elementts used to control weeds in GE crops are shown to cross the human placenta with unknown effect…see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15929894…..call for serious circumspection before going ‘gee wow’ about apples which last a few weeks longer on supermarket shelves.

  3. #3 Kelly Wilson
    April 27, 2012

    The post and the video are quite curious, I didn’t even imagine it was possible, was very interesting to read and watch on the whole even though there were some particular things I failed to understand due to my lack of knowlege in this field.

  4. #4 Roxanne
    September 2, 2011

    This should be of interest to all of you – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YH4OwBYDQe8&feature=player_embedded#!

  5. #5 Patrick
    April 25, 2011

    My my, such a lot of interest in the little red apple. It appears that the Adam and Eve story is re awakening. temptation by desire of profit and adulation…how far are we willing to fall?
    Why has no one thought to mention that already a wonderful hybrid cross, on the market now, called Red Love. A juicy,crunchy new apple, red inside and out, safe to eat, delicious and highly sought after, you can eat it now!!! The story can be found here http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1294926/The-apple-thinks-tomato-Worlds-red-fleshed-variety-hits-supermarket-shelves.html
    A scientist of Ronalds standing should be aware of the difference between natural crossing hybrids and the laboratory manipulation of DNA to create a synthetic gene cassette.
    I am sorry Mr Ronald but Organic systems of farming will not make genetically engineered seeds any safer for the environment or peoples health. Why go down the GE road when we have non-GE seeds with the desired traits available today?

  6. #6 turkey34
    April 24, 2011

    Regular pre-amble – I’m a Monsanto employee, the views expressed herein are entirely my own and not those of Monsanto – I work in R&D, not PR, which explains why I come across as such an ass.
    turkey34

  7. #7 marina
    April 22, 2011

    Honestly eventhough the apple has all that good effects, it does not look tasty. And probably I would not bite it. Hope they will made something that is tasteful and has positive effects.

  8. #8 Toby
    April 21, 2011

    Here in the Pacific NW, we have an apple variety called “Mountain Rose” which is a spontaneous hybrid of crabapple and golden delicious. They have yellow skin and very tart pink flesh (presumably higher anthocyanin levels). The NZ apples seem like a totally blameless application of GE to food crops – anthocyanins are wholesome as can be, anti-oxidant flavanoids. What’s not to like?

    I’m somewhat more wary of Bt crops, though, not because they increase pesticide use (if that’s true, they clearly aren’t expressing the Bt gene – perhaps you were thinking of Roundup Ready?), but just because it seems likely to lead to resistance.

  9. #9 Marie Nyman
    April 20, 2011

    Just read Tomorrows table. It is a wonderful and very important book! Many thanks to you and ypur husband! I tried to sign up for the newletter to this blog but failed. Can´t understand why?
    Keep up the good work!
    Greetings from Sweden.

  10. #10 deutsch porno
    April 20, 2011

    A good question to start with is…

  11. #11 Biebs
    April 18, 2011

    It’s not GM food that’s the problem. It’s that unscrupulous and evil companies like Monsanto abuse it for nefarious purposes. I’ll always be against GM food as long as Monsanto has their hand in it.

  12. #12 Yesilcam Seksfilm
    April 12, 2011

    Thank scienceblogs Bir numarasınız bualende üstüneze yokturu emekelerine geçelener selamolsun…
    Whew! I’m glad you didn’t eat the forbidden fruit. All we need is another sin to start getting past down through bloodlines to future generations for all eternity.
    yeşilçam seksfilm

  13. #13 Kenneth
    April 12, 2011

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  14. #14 Kenneth
    April 12, 2011

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  15. they are owned by everyone instead of being patented by a handful of corporations.

  16. #16 pam ronald
    April 10, 2011

    @Doc N. Interesting link. I feel for the public. There seems to be complete confusion on the part of the consumer and the billboard does not help. “the billboard is confusing and more or less wrong in terms of the immediate risks in the near future”

    9sn: noone is yet eating the apples. Conventional breeding has not yet been successful and GE crops are banned in NZ.

  17. #17 TurkSeksi
    April 9, 2011

    Hiii
    A good question to start with is…
    Why do we need to GE modify the apple in the first place what’s wrong with the existing apples? Oh, right…they are owned by everyone instead of being patented by a handful of corporations.
    Turkseksi

  18. #18 9sn
    April 9, 2011

    are we eating these?

  19. #19 Kurdelenakisi
    April 9, 2011

    goood scinesblogs güzel gerçaek anlamıyla elma kazakistan iyibir anlatın olmuyşutur sizeleri çokteşikürlerini sunmakatıdır, çalaşmalarındanaz aynen devam eötkmenizi canıgölünledn dilemekteyim istanbulda bugibi ilçniellerin rastalamak isterdir, ismekteeğitim almışisnalarnıda bireşeleyere el atamasında gerekmeketüiri. thank
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  20. #20 Doc N.
    April 9, 2011

    It’s a shame that there’s such a knee-jerk reaction to GE here (NZ). We had these ridiculous anti-GE billboard ads, a few years back(http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/news/2003/10/60883). Anytime I’ve talked to a staunch anti-GE proponent, their arguements seems to be highly emotive than well-researched (or even well-thought out). One chap firmly declared he would never touch anything than had originated in a lab, then excused himself to inject his lunchtime insulin.

  21. #21 Villas in Bali
    April 6, 2011

    never seen an apple like that before….thank you fro bringing the video..nice catch..lol

  22. #22 altın çilek
    April 6, 2011

    A good question to start with is…Why do we need to GE modify the apple in the first place – what’s wrong with the existing apples? Oh, right…they are owned by everyone instead of being patented by a handful of corporations.

  23. #23 GroovyJ
    April 6, 2011

    Genetic engineering is not, in and of itself, a problem. Used sensibly, with caution, it is an excellent tool for us to improve our health and comfort, and reduce substantially our negative impact on our environment.

    The problem is capitalism. Capitalism, by its nature, encourages and rewards recklessness and excess. It ensures that individuals can reap massive benefits from developing and controlling such technologies, while allowing them to pass on any harms they cause to society as a whole. In every case, it rewards a willingness to take risks (which is all well and good when you’re risking your own financial solvency, but not so good when you don’t actually have any idea what you’re risking or for whom) and a willingness to flatly ignore any disadvantage that does not come with an associated financial cost.

    I would feel a lot more comfortable with such technologies if I knew they were in responsible hands, with strong oversight. Apparently, in New Zealand, that is the case. Yes, it may slow things down. Yes, it may result in the blanket application of restrictions that seem silly in particular cases. Ultimately, though, we DON’T know how much harm we are capable of causing with this technology, and so it behooves us to move slowly and steadily, to take no chances.

  24. #24 Ewan R
    April 6, 2011

    Regular pre-amble – I’m a Monsanto employee, the views expressed herein are entirely my own and not those of Monsanto – I work in R&D, not PR, which explains why I come across as such an ass.

    A good question to start with is…Why do we need to GE modify the apple in the first place – what’s wrong with the existing apples? Oh, right…they are owned by everyone instead of being patented by a handful of corporations.

    “non-profit research institute in New Zealand” – quite clearly corporate monopolists. Most non-profits are.

    It’s not accurate that BT cotton has halved pesticides – it has increased the use of pesticides in India 100-fold.

    Citation? I’m guessing the only way this could be remotely true is if you’re counting the Bt protein as a pesticide, in which case it is true but essentially meaningless – class I & II insecticide use has plummeted on Indian cotton due to the introduction of Bt – if this is tied to a 100 (or 1000, or million) fold increase in the amount of Bt in the country which is utterly harmless to humans and has essentially zero input requirement (unlike manufactured pesticides) then it remains a good thing ™

    There has been massice crop failures with Bt cotton across india – look into the farmer suicides in India and see what is the root symptoms for it – GM cotton crop failure.

    Crop failure in general actually combined with a punitive loan system – farming is a risky business – if you look at the actual numbers the cost differential in raising a Bt crop compared to a regular crop of cotton is somewhere in the region of 5% extra for a potential 50-150% increase in end season income – to suggest that a 5% change in end season indebtedness either way is the driving force behind horrible (although barely changing over the past 20 years) suicide rates is disingenous and frankly appalling – regular crops can fail, Bt crops can fail – either way a failed crop leaves a farmer seriously out financially – it jsut so happens that utilization of Bt offers a far better payoff when the crop doesn’t fail (which is most of the time, which explains why bt cotton is so ubiquitous in India – your assessment doesn’t pan out – if the crop is so horrible how do you explain the adoption rates, how do you explain the massive increases in farmer income and cotton yield?)

    New Zealand obviously is aware of the tendencies for these GM crops to cross into natural varieties and pollute our biodiversity.

    And out precious bodily fluids. Don’t forget the precious bodily fluids.

  25. #25 Dan L
    April 6, 2011

    “It seems enhanced nitrogen use efficiency would also be quite useful for sheep farmers.”

    It seems strange that the nitrogen rich droppings of grazing sheep count for so little that highly soluble nitrogen fertilizers are required for pasturing, even with the nitrogen fixing behaviors of clover.

    I very much understand the value of a drought-resistant rye grass, in terms of providing forage for more weeks in a Mediterranean climate, but the use of synthetic fertilizers makes me think that they are leveraging the pasture with extra energy input in the form of synthetic fertilizers.

    Likewise the use of palm kernel feed when forage is not available seems to suggest extra energy input into the system for improved yields. The costs of production of palm kernel are borne by other people in other places, as the feed is imported to New Zealand, and the impacts of palm plantations in those other places is (in the long term) disproportionate to the benefits received in New Zealand.

    As you said, seed is only part of the process. Extra energy inputs into the system, in the form of petroleum-intensive fertilizers and monoculture palm kernel plantations could easily be much more important in the short term then the genetic modification of crops.

  26. #26 Aunt Benjy
    April 5, 2011

    Dr Martini @5

    A good question to start with is…Why do we need to GE modify the apple in the first place – what’s wrong with the existing apples? Oh, right…they are owned by everyone instead of being patented by a handful of corporations.

    You don’t *need* GE to modify the apple…conventional breeders have been doing that since horticulture began. Consumer demand for apples that will cool-store well, can be shipped without the skin breaking, better flavour and colour ensures that there is always a market for novel varieties.

    Conventional plant breeding has always been a pretty hit-and-miss affair, so the beauty of GE for the breeder is that it is faster and much more targeted towards the desired end result.

    BTW, Plant Variety Rights apply to most of the conventionally bred varieties of fruit and veges that you buy in your local supermarket. In New Zealand most of these PVRs are held by government funded research institutions rather than private corporations, and are a major source of funding for food research.

  27. #27 MS4
    April 5, 2011

    Apples need to be genetically modified as traditional cross breading strategies are not appropriate given their genetic structure. Ever heard the phrase “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree?” Well it is completly wrong as apples have such a diverse genetic structure and are heterozygous at so many locations that a given cross can give a bush just as likely as a tree and that is saying nothing about the fruit. Currently all apples are cloned and have been since the 1850s, more in the traditional agriculture sense of cuttings instead of seeds. A big part of why there are so many varieties and individual names i.e. granny smith has to do with the original source of subsequent clones. Furthermore, as they are all clones they are very vulnerable to pests, fungus and infections and so current apples per pound of produce use the largest amount of pesticides and this demand is only escalating.

    I will not argue about the hardships of the rapid industrialization and population expansion in India. However, to lay all the blame on the technique of genetic engineering is too much of a stretch. I would agree with the criticisms of Mansanto though their crimes lie much more in missuse of intelectual property and less in specific mechanisms of enhanced crop production. Still I ask directly, do you think a 500,000$ fine for a bite of an apple is fair legally?

  28. #28 Dr.Martini
    April 5, 2011

    I think this article over-simplifies the GE issue.

    A good question to start with is…Why do we need to GE modify the apple in the first place – what’s wrong with the existing apples? Oh, right…they are owned by everyone instead of being patented by a handful of corporations.

    It’s not accurate that BT cotton has halved pesticides – it has increased the use of pesticides in India 100-fold. It has depleted the water tables, and has damaged the soil. There has been massice crop failures with Bt cotton across india – look into the farmer suicides in India and see what is the root symptoms for it – GM cotton crop failure.

    GM crops, with their associated patent ownership, is not a sustainable system. What I loved about the article is the depth of penalties for violating the trials – New Zealand obviously is aware of the tendencies for these GM crops to cross into natural varieties and pollute our biodiversity.
    Thank you for your sane approach, New Zealand. It is refreshing to find such common sense in the world today…

  29. #29 Dunc
    April 5, 2011

    isn’t there anybody on this planet who can think clearly?

    Signs point to “no”.

  30. #30 Bruce
    April 4, 2011

    As I live in New Zealand this is quite an interesting article. I’ll keep an eye out for the book.

  31. #31 NJ
    April 4, 2011

    So, let me get this straight.

    The highly regulated GE apple came about by transferring genes from one type of apple into…another type of apple?

    What’s next? Human sacrifice? Dogs and cats living together?

    I swear, between creationists and climate change deniers on one side and anti-vaccine and anti-GE on the other, isn’t there anybody on this planet who can think clearly?

  32. #32 scott
    April 4, 2011

    Whew! I’m glad you didn’t eat the forbidden fruit. All we need is another sin to start getting past down through bloodlines to future generations for all eternity.

    Seriously though, I feel a little sorry for you having to deal with all the wing nuts out there that are completely ignorant of genetics and GM foods. The Dr. Oz thing about pissed me off. Just so you know I appreciate the work you do, and I appreciate you being a voice of reason. Carry on soldier.