Friday, March 10, 2017

GMO Orange Juice?

As I was waiting in line at Subway next to the refrigerated display where they have their bottled drinks and apple slices, I noticed a couple of rows of bottles labeled as Non-GMO orange juice.  Of course as a critical thinker, the first thing I wondered is whether there was any GMO orange juice, or is this just another marketing ploy to take advantage of the scientifically challenged.  Remember a couple of months ago when the Hunt’s Company was embarrassed because they implied in ads that they used only non-GMO tomatoes in their products when, in fact, there are no GMO tomatoes being grown commercially anywhere in North America.  Whoops!

Research in this case was quite easy and interesting.  I found this article on the Huffington Post website from May 2015.  It describes the effort by one company to develop and get approval for GMO oranges “to resist citrus greening, a ruinous disease that has caused orange production to plummet to the lowest levels seen in decades.”  This is a very serious problem.  The bacterial disease is “spread from tree to tree by tiny insects called psyllids.”  It causes the trees to bear small, green, bitter fruit that drops prematurely.  As a result the orange production is dropping, driving up the prices of oranges and orange juice.  This worldwide problem “could eventually destroy the American citrus industry” with far reaching effects throughout the economy.

The best defense to date has been the heavy use of nutrients and insecticides, but this is not totally effective nor can it be seen as a long-term solution.  The best alternative seems to be one taken by Southern Gardens, developing a GMO orange, resistant to the disease, by splicing in a gene from spinach.

The advantages to this approach are many.  It will drastically cut the need for insecticides.  Since the gene comes from spinach, which people eat already and to which allergies are very rare, the resulting oranges should not be a danger to anyone.  Furthermore, “the overwhelming majority of scientists, and almost every major scientific organization that has taken a stand on the issue, believe that genetic modification poses no inherent risks to human health, and that the GMOs that have been approved for consumption so far are completely safe to eat.”  And with the very un-scary spinach connection, even some GMO skeptics have endorsed the idea.  Finally, the oranges must be thoroughly tested and approved before going to market.  So GMO orange juice is not a bad thing - and far better than no orange juice at all.

The biggest fear of GMO products results from a combination of the novelty and mystery of the technology to the general public, the fear mongering among a small group of self-proclaimed food experts and the effort by advertisers (like the makers of that so-called non-GMO orange juice that I came across) to exploit the consumer misconception that non-GMO means safer and healthier.

The final and perhaps most telling point comes near the end of the article.  Trees are not like corn.  You can’t just plant a seed and see results at the end of a growing season.  It will take years, so “the very soonest these oranges could come to market would be in three years, but…five to seven years would be a more realistic target.”  Five to seven years from May 2015 would be around 2021.  Contrary to what those bottles on the shelf imply, today there is no such thing as a GMO orange or GMO orange juice.  To say your juice is non-GMO is worse than meaningless.  It may not be false advertising, but it certainly isn’t completely honest either.  Whoops!

By the way, the same goes for the "non-GMO" lemonade sitting on the shelf beside it.

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