WASHINGTON, DC, May 10, 2013- Genetically modified (GM) crops have been part of the U.S. food supply for several years. However, only one type of GM fruit, the Hawaiian papaya (Rainbow and SunUp), has been available to U.S. consumers. This may change by the end of 2013.
If approved, two varieties of apple, Arctic® Granny Smith and Arctic® Golden Delicious, will be the second GM fruits allowed into the U.S. food supply.
Created by Okanagan Specialty Fruits in British Columbia, Canada, Arctic® apples do not bruise or brown when sliced.
Browning in apples and potatoes results from polyphenol oxidase (PPO), an enzyme that produces melanin, a compound that contains iron and gives cells a brown tint. To create Arctic apples, Okanagan scientists silenced the apples’ PPO genes by inserting a man-made gene that contains portions of four natural PPO genes. As a consequence, Arctic apples produce less than ten percent of the PPO produced by conventional apples and therefore do not brown when sliced.
Unlike most genetically modified crops in the U.S., genetically engineered to resist pests, droughts or chemicals, Arctic apples are modified purely for cosmetic reasons, nicknamed “Botox apples” by Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.
Okanagan disagrees that Arctic apples’ benefits are purely cosmetic. “Not only do they have significant potential to reduce food waste, the resistance to browning results in better taste, texture and likely a retention of healthful components like vitamin C and antioxidants, which are typically burned up in the browning reaction,” says Joel Brooks, Marketing Specialist at Okanagan.
Supporters argue that Arctic apples can potentially increase apple sales and consumption in the U.S. Arctic apples would be especially lucrative for sliced packaged apple producers, which lose a large percentage of their apples to browning and are forced to spray them with an anti-oxidant that can alter flavor and raise production costs.
Arctic apples will also be a beneficial to the foodservice industry, which does not use a large volume of apples at present, precisely due to browning. Supermarkets will also benefit as Arctics can potentially cut down on losses due to bruising and apples that are no longer attractive for sale. The non-browning apples would even benefit consumers, who would end up throwing less fruit away and therefore spending less money.
“One of the big challenges is to educate people about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and how it’s really not that scary,” said Neal Carter, founder of Okanagan in a recent interview. “I feel it’s time for opponents to stop referring to biotechnology as a science experiment.”
Criticism of the Arctic apple focuses on health, environmental, and economic concerns. While “no evidence that Arctic apples are unsafe has come to light nor has any reasonable mechanism by which they could be,” many are concerned with the unknown long-term health effects that this and other GM foods may pose.
Apple growers are also concerned with genetic drift, where pollen from Arctic apple trees would drift and contaminate nearby organic and conventional orchards, potentially preventing these crops from obtaining organic certification or exportation to the EU.
According to Okanagan, this is unlikely to happen because apple trees produce excess pollen when they bloom, and bees will not have to wander too far for food. Despite considering it unlikely, Okanagan addresses the possibility of genetic drift in its APHIS petition by recommending buffer rows of trees around the GM crop. Critics say that there is no way to guarantee that buffer rows will be enough to prevent gene flow and protect conventional apple growers.
The Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents Washington State’s tree-fruit industry, also opposes Arctic apples. According to Chris Schlect, Council President, there is a possibility that consumers, especially European consumers and those around the world, will reject fruit grown in Washington altogether, regardless of whether it is genetically modified or not.
The road to your plate
Two US agencies currently stand in the way of Arctic apples’ journey to your grocery store produce section: the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Okanagan is currently seeking “deregulated status” from USDA and APHIS for both varieties of Arctic apples, submitting a petition in May 2010. Specifically, Okanagan will have to prove that Arctic apple crops are not significantly weaker against plant pests and therefore would not endanger other crops that are nearby.
So far, the Arctic Granny Smith has shown increased incidence of a leaf-eating bug known as tentiform leafminer, but for the 13 other pests and diseases tested for by Okanagan, both varieties of Arctic apples have performed better or the same as conventional apples.
The first of two public comment sessions closed in September 2012 and received nearly 2,000 comments.
“We expect a second U.S. public comment period, which will be 30 days long, to open within the next few months and anticipate full U.S. deregulation later in 2013,” Neal Carter, president of Okanagan said in an interview last month.
Okanagan is also voluntarily consulting with FDA to provide proof that Arctic apples are allergen and toxin free, and safe for human consumption. See here for a detailed description of Okanagan’s consultation with FDA.
Several other GM fruit companies are closely watching Okanagan’s progress through the U.S. regulatory system and are poised to follow in Arctic’s footsteps and into our grocery stores, restaurants, and cafeterias. Okanagan itself is already developing GM peaches, pears, and cherries.
Under current FDA regulations, GM foods are only required to be identified as such when they are substantially different from the natural version. Since Arctic apples are not considered by FDA to be substantially different from conventional apples, they will not require a label once they reach the U.S. market.
While Okanagan will voluntarily label their fruit, according to Carter, Okanagan supports transparency but opposes mandatory labeling. “We as a company don’t support mandatory labeling because we feel it basically undermines the regulatory process,” he said in a recent interview. We’ve gone through a three-year, very rigorous process and the result of that is that it’s deemed to be as safe as any other apple. Finally they expect you to put a label on it like a scare tactic against GMOs.”
While some opponents have resigned themselves to the fact that GM foods are and will continue to enter the U.S. food supply, many advocate labeling of GM foods in order to allow consumers to make an educated choice on whether or not to purchase and consume GM foods.
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