Culture

Published on July 27th, 2009 | by Steve Savage

5

Would You Eat Cloned Fruit?


Cloned Asian Pears in New Zealand (s.savage)

Cloned asian pears in New Zealand (photo Steve Savage)

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OK, I’ll admit it.  That question and the picture caption are a little bit manipulative because few people know that all the major fruit crops are technically “cloned” because they have to be to get the varieties we want.  If you take the seed of a Fuji apple and plant it, the tree you will eventually grow will not make Fuji apples.

It will be something new because when the apple flower was pollinated there was a new combination of genes from the male and female flower.  Its the same reason our kids don’t come out exactly like either parent.  So, for millennia, people have been propagating the fruit varieties they liked by making cuttings or grafting or some other way to keep the identical genetics of the desirable fruit.

So, there really isn’t anything creepy about eating cloned fruit, but because I use the emotive term, “cloned,” I can usually get a negative response.  Why do I mess with farming-naive people this way?  I do it to make the point that if you want to understand controversial issues about food and the environment, you need to be vigilant about being manipulated by emotive terms.

I find this to be particularly true about the anti-GMO camp.  Its one thing to make an argument, but the reason that many people are afraid of these things is that they have been given a healthy dose of disinformation, often through the use of emotive terms that don’t really convey information as much as they do fear.

Syrah

Syrah grapes (photo by Steve Savage)

A Classic Example of Manipulation with an Emotive Term

I’ll give an example.  A few years back, Mendocino County in California was voting on an initiative to ban GMO crops in that county.  The argument was that they might “contaminate” the pristine Organic crops in the county.  Leaving aside the point that there really aren’t GMO crops you would grow there, the genetic “contamination” issue was an effective red herring.

If someone talked about “cross pollination” or “out-crossing” I don’t think so many people would have been alarmed, but “genetic contamination” made what is really a very natural process sound scary.  In nature pollen from one plant gets to another one with the help of the wind or bees or other pollinator species.  We generally think of that as a good thing and are rightly concerned if there are problems for bees.  The exact thing happens with both GMO and non-GMO crops.  But pollen can only contribute its genes to a very closely related plant.  If there were ever to be something like GMO grapes, the pollen could only go to another grape – not any other crop.

One of the larger Mendocino wineries (which shall remain unnamed) was supporting the ban.  I called a Ph.D. level viticulturist there and asked why?  She gave me the “genetic contamination” line because they grow a lot of Organic grapes.  I was stunned.  I said, “you do know how grapes are propagated, right?”  Of course she knew that they are grafted as buds onto rootstocks which are grown from cuttings (all forms of “Cloning”).  You don’t raise grapes from seeds and besides, grapes almost completely “self” pollinate from anthers in the same flower (I could probably make that sound scary if I wanted to).  I asked the viticulturist if they have ever had a “contamination” issue when blocks of Chardonnay are planted right next to Cabernet?  Of course they had not.  What it really came down to was that the use of ominous terminology had so colored the debate in the county that it was politically inviable for the winery to take a stand for GMO (particularly since it is so unlikely to happen anyway).

If you are someone who cares about the environment and about the food supply, I’d encourage you to be savvy about information sources that use emotive terminology.  Try the “cloned fruit” line on some friends and then help spread this caution.



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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



  • russ

    Excellent article Steve – Glad to see you point out the facts. We have been modifying food and ornamental plants for a few thousand years.

    I can remember when the grain Elmer (short stems with better production) first came out in the 50’s and many farmers didn’t like it because you could no longer grow your own seed. They soon forgot the complaint and switched.

    I expect there are very few commercial plants that resemble their predecessors of even 100 years back.

    Of course not all the ‘improvements’ have been good. The flavor was largely bred out of apples and tomatoes
    in favor of better handling and shipping characteristics.

    GMO is neither good or bad overall – case by case study is required.

  • VL Sanders

    The difficulty with GMO’s and the important difference that many people don’t understand about cloning, hybridizing, grafting practices is that Genetically Modified Organism’s include mixing genetic materials from widely divergent species. I appreciate your caution and agree that we need to understand when we are being manipulated by “ominous terminology”; and we need to judge new technologies on a case by case basis.
    I’m not a viticulturist, but “what if” some one decided to create a GMO grape variety that had built in pesticide properties borrowed from some other species? We would of course need to know the specifics of what cells were borrowed from what organism and what are the possible effects on the grapes, the people who consume the products and any possible cross pollinations with neighboring and closely related varieties.
    I for one would want to be sure that 10 years down the road we weren’t facing some devastating epidemic to either animals or plants affected by the GMO grape.
    There are more than just cross-pollination concerns when dealing with GMO crops. US farmers who bought into hybrid seeds, can no longer save their own seed and are thus more economically dependent (and thus the decline of family owned farms in the US)on Agrobusiness companies to sell them hybrid seed and accompanying products to suit the specialized seed. The problem is compounded a thousand fold for farmers in “3rd world countries” who are being coopted by Agrobusiness companies. Please read Vandana Shiva excellent books on this subject. Soil Not Oil and Earth Democracy give us very clear understanding of the devastation being committed by US companies on Indian and other “developing countries” in the name of progress. This is not progress.
    Please be aware that the controversy over GMO seeds are not limited to one crop or one country. It is a world wide issue that must be looked at from a global perspective, and considered from the viewpoint that PEOPLE MATTER MORE THAN PROFITS.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    Dude, how did you get a job here on “sustainablog”? You almost sound like me…

    BTW, not only would I eat cloned food, I would welcome it being irradiated to kill any funk living on it.

  • Pingback: Are Large, For-Profit Corporations Intrinsically Less Ethical? : Sustainablog()

  • http://desigrub.com B @ DesiGrub

    Very entertaining and informative post! I agree that people with the knowledge shouldn’t get carried away with the emotive labeling and help to spread the real fact about the food.

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