Would You Eat Cloned Fruit?

nz pears

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.

grapes

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.

Written by sdsavage

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