By: Tim Nesbitt 

Apples and salmon aren't usually served on the same plate, but here in Foodie Oregon they appear side by side on the logo of the "Right to Know" campaignAnd they may be just the ingredients we need to understand what's at stake in the debate over labeling food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Let me start with apples. As a new co-owner of a small tree fruit orchard, I have been enjoying the discovery of more than 100 different apples this year. All of them are unique in how they taste when eaten fresh or when pressed for cider, in how they store and in how they hold together when baked. They are the product of centuries of selective breeding. Some of them were favored by Thomas Jefferson. Others are more recent varieties. They are nature's bounty, from which human horticulture has selected and propagated the most tasty, hardy and nutritious variations for our consumption.

Now that horticulture has gone high-tech, it was only a matter of time before GMO apples began to emerge from the proprietary laboratories that are spearheading the development of genetically engineered crops and food. Earlier this year, a Canadian company announced plans to market a GMO apple that resists browning when sliced. Its announcement was trumpeted as a marvel of science.

But nature has already given us nonbrowning apples. I discovered several such varieties in the orchard this year. Ginger Golds were the best. I sliced one, left it out all night on the kitchen counter and found no browning at all the next morning. So why would we need a genetically engineered apple to resist browning?

Genetic engineering involves the insertion of genes from one organism to another. It also produces a patentable product. The Ginger Golds are what we would now call "open source." We can thank Mother Nature and a little selective breeding for that. But Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which has licensed the GMO apple, was not satisfied with what nature has given us. Its co-founder told the Wall Street Journal that he hopes the company's new nonbrowning apple will "help soften consumer concerns of biotech crops in general." That sounds like an apple with an agenda, proffered by a modern day tree of knowledge.

I suppose I now have apples in this fight. But that's not why I'm making this point. And I'm not saying that all genetic engineering is bad. When fruits and vegetables are bred to improve their hardiness, ease of harvest or nutritional value, those are worthy purposes that have guided the development of diverse varieties for many centuries. If genetically engineered varieties can accomplish these purposes better or faster, let's put them to the test. All things being equal, I'd welcome better fruits and vegetables on our farms and in our diets.

But all things are not equal in much of the GMO food industry. Its biggest developers have focused much of their engineering prowess on patented crops that can withstand large doses of their proprietary herbicides. The result, as described by the Oregon Environmental Council, has been "the increased use of herbicides that can harm our land, water and wildlife."

What about salmon? There are no GMO salmon on the market today. But they have advanced from the laboratory to the pens of a company called AquaBounty Technologies. The Food and Drug Administration has given the farming of these fish its stamp of "no significant impact" and could authorize their sale to consumers without further review. These GMO salmon have been engineered to grow faster than natural salmon. But critics contend that what they call "frankenfish" lack the nutritional quality of their natural progenitors.

As genetic engineering expands and commercializes, there has been too little attention paid to its purposes. Genetic technologies could, theoretically, produce foods that are more compatible with sound stewardship of our land and resources and are more nutritious for consumers. But those are not the motivations of the companies that are working to engineer new apples and salmon. And, like the chemical companies that are gaining an increasing share of our food choices, they don't want their products singled out for consumer scrutiny.

The fruits of the new tree of knowledge don't come with a label. They should. Measure 92will make that happen and, over time, give consumers the market power to shape its branches to more beneficial purposes.

Tim Nesbitt writes on public affairs, has served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber, and is past president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. He writes weekly for and The Oregonian.

Originally Published: Oregon Live