Will a non-browing GM apple irreparably hurt the fruit’s image?

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Conventional Granny Smith apple (left) vs. Arctic Apple (right). Image via NPR.

According to Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the small Canadian company that developed the genetically modified Arctic Apple, the non-browning fruit should appeal to consumers and food service companies by making apples more attractive to serve or sell. But many anti-GMO groups worry that these apples are somehow unsafe, despite the fact that the USDA has issued a preliminary conclusion that Arctic Apples are just as safe as conventional ones.

Despite the perception otherwise, however, the science behind the apple is actually quite simple. To create the non-browning trait, scientists inserted extra copies of genes that the apple already possessed. These genes normally create an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase, which causes browning due to a chemical reaction.

When these extra copies of the gene are added, the apple reacts by shutting down all of them, stopping production of the enzyme and preventing the browning. Also, there is a misconception that the apples will never brown, which simply isn’t true. Like any conventional apple, Arctic Apples will go brown due to rot, just not from the enzyme.

Currently, the company produces apples with the non-browning trait in the Golden Delicious and Granny Smith varieties. The U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed Okanagan to produce them in test plots covering a few acres in the states of New York and Washington. The company is also working on Fuji and Gala apples with the trait.

But the very benefit of these apples could also potentially prevent them from gaining popularity. The fact that Arctic Apples won’t brown could taint the public’s perception of apples, which is of a simple, clean and wholesome fruit. NPR columnist Dan Charles notes that while benefits to consumers will be significant, marketing will be a big challenge for the company:

Food service companies, [says Okanagan Specialty Fruits president Neal Carter], would no longer have to treat their sliced apples with antioxidant chemicals like calcium ascorbate to keep them looking fresh.

The cost savings “can be huge,” he says. “Right now, to make fresh-cut apple slices and put them in the bag, 35 or 40 percent of the cost is the antioxident treatment. So you could make a fresh-cut apple slice 30 percent cheaper.”

The new apples are waiting for approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But they face opposition — including from apple producers who worry that this new product will taint the apple’s wholesome, all-natural image.

A 2012 New York Times article reported that consumers weren’t quite sure how to feel about Arctic Apples:

Consumer surveys show various attitudes toward the apple, depending on how the questions are asked. A survey commissioned by Okanagan last year, which emphasized browning, found that nearly 60 percent of American apple eaters were somewhat or extremely likely to buy the Arctic Apples.

But a survey conducted a couple of weeks ago that emphasized genetic engineering found nearly 70 percent of Canadians opposed to approval of the apple. That survey was commissioned by the British Columbia Fruit Growers’ Association — which opposes the apples even though Mr. Carter is a member — and the Quebec Apple Growers’ Association.

The Arctic Apple has also received a wave of backlash from other apple growers, worried that the transgenic crop will mix with nontransgenic varieties. A Seattle Times profile of company president Neal Carter noted that the company faces its biggest challenges from its peers:

Undoubtedly the biggest blow, though, has come from a surprising source: Carter’s own peers in the apple industry. The U.S. Apple Association, the Northwest Horticultural Council, and the BC Fruit Grower’s Association have all urged regulatory authorities in the U.S. and Canada to deny approval to the Arctic. In a letter to the USDA, the Northwest Horticultural Council compared the “threat of the Arctic apple” to “an invasive pest species.”

As the USDA inches towards approving the Arctic Apple, it must also address lingering protests from anti-GMO activists. The period during which the public can submit comments on the apple will end on January 30. The initial comment period in 2012 drew more than 72,000 statements, so many are likely to come from this extended period. Still, federal officials have concluded that the GM apple is safe and will not affect organic crops, so the public will likely have the final say once the apples are on the market.

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