For apple growers who remember how the Alar scare wrecked a commercial industry back in 1989, reading a recent edition of Science magazine probably won't be comforting. It reports on a host of fruit breeding developments, fast-tracked by the promise of genetic engineering, that could speed new apple varieties into the orchard.
Among other techniques, breeders at USDA's Kearneysville apple research lab in West Virginia identified a fast-flowering gene. It promises to put fruit on experimental variety test cultivars in less than a year, then allow laboratory genetic screening for the trait sought by a tree breeder. That could take away years from a horticultural breeding process that seems to take forever to deliver a new market apple variety.
For those who've forgotten, Alar was a "stop drop" chemical applied to some commercial apple varieties for nearly three decades. The wheels came off in 1989 when a CBS television report found traces of the chemical on fresh apples and perhaps applesauce. On top of that, Alar in some concentrations had recently been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals.
Across the country, moms stopped buying apples and applesauce. Never mind that not all varieties were treated with the chemical, or that the trace amounts in the CBS-commissioned lab tests were far less than the doses needed to make a mouse ill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned Alar. It took years for the apple industry to bounce back to the pre-1989 market share it had of total U.S. fruit purchases.
In the 21st century, many consumers shy away from genetically modified food, apparently without giving the process any more study than that given by the moms who stopped buying apples in 1989. Realities of the consumer-driven market are that you stay away from producing fruits and vegetables which might spook your customers.
The same article on what's called "FasTrack" fruit trees says the USDA scientists figured out how to also screen cultivars that have the desired horticultural trait -- sweetness or skin color -- and don't have the biotech FasTrack gene. Technically, that's a normal tree.
The question is, are you as a commercial grower going to put the thing in your orchard and hope another sensational news report doesn't come along a decade later triggering anti-biotech consumer backlash?
We love the advances of science, but the reality is that it's the consumers who make the call.