Genetically engineered apple raises a storm

Genetically engineered apple raises a storm

The so-called Arctic Apple could become one of the first GE fruits that people directly bite into.

A small company is trying to bring to market a genetically engineered apple that does not turn brown when sliced or bruised. But it has much of the rest of the apple industry seeing red. The company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, says the nonbrowning apple will prove popular with consumers and food service companies and help increase sales of apples, in part by making sliced apples more attractive to serve or sell.

While Americans have been eating genetically engineered foods since the 1990s, those have been mainly processed foods. The Arctic Apple, as it is being called, could become one of the first genetically engineered versions of a fruit that people directly bite into. But the US Apple Association, which represents the US apple industry, opposes introduction of the product, as do some other industry organisations. They say that, while they do not believe that the genetic engineering is dangerous, it could undermine the fruit’s image as a healthy and natural food, the one that keeps the doctor away and is as American as, well, apple pie.

“We don’t think it’s in the best interest of the apple industry of the United States to have that product in the marketplace at this time,” said Christian Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents the tree-fruit industry in and around Washington state, which produces about 60 per cent of the nation’s apples.

The Agriculture Department is expected to open a 60-day public comment period on Okanagan’s application for regulatory approval of the genetically modified apple trees. A public comment period just ended in Canada, where the company is also seeking approval. Neal Carter, founder and president of the company, which is based in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, said the nonbrowning apples could improve industry sales, much as baby carrots did for carrot sales.

A whole apple is “for many people too big a commitment,” he said. “If you had a bowl of apples at a meeting, people wouldn’t take an apple out of the bowl. But if you had a plate of apple slices, everyone would take a slice.”

Consumption of fresh apples in the United States has fallen gradually from a peak of about 21 pounds a year for each person in 1989 to less than 16 pounds, according to the Agriculture Department.

Apple slices are becoming more popular as a healthful snack, sold in bags in supermarkets and included by McDonald’s in its Happy Meals for children. The slices are often coated with a mixture of vitamin C and calcium to prevent browning and preserve crispness. But that can affect the taste, Carter said. He also said growers would have fewer apples rejected by supermarkets because of the minor bruising that is common from handling of the fruit.

Arctic Apples, which would first be available in the Golden Delicious and Granny Smith varieties, contain a synthetic gene that sharply reduces production of polyphenol oxidase, an enzyme responsible for the browning.

Self-defence mechanism

The gene does not come from another species. Rather, it contains DNA sequences from four of the apple’s own genes that govern production of polyphenol oxidase. Putting an extra copy of a gene into a plant can activate a self-defence mechanism known as RNA interference that shuts down both the extra copy and the endogenous gene.

Some critics say the lack of browning could conceal problems with an apple that consumers may want to know about. “Is it a rotten apple that looks fresh?” said Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a coalition of groups critical of genetically engineered crops. Sharratt also said the genetic engineering was “designed to turn the apple into an industrialised product” that could be sold in plastic bags instead of as whole fresh fruit.

Carter said the injury from bruising or slicing was not harmful to consumers. If the apple were truly rotten from a bacterial or fungal infection, it would still change colours. “The stuff that is really bad and people won’t want to eat will still be bad,” he said.Genetically engineered foods do not require approval from the Food and Drug Administration, though Okanagan has voluntarily submitted data for agency review. 

Some people in the apple industry said there was little need for such technology. A person putting sliced apples into a salad or a child’s lunchbox could coat the slices with lemon juice to retard browning. 

Carter of Okanagan said the nonbrowning effect could last 15 to 17 days under the right conditions. A survey conducted a couple of weeks ago that emphasized genetic engineering found nearly 70 per cent 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 Carter is a member – and the Quebec Apple Growers’ Association.

Why not just let the apple onto the market to see if it succeeds or fails? Some apple industry executives say consumers or countries that buy US apples may be unsure which apples are genetically engineered and avoid the products altogether. About 28 per cent of the roughly $2 billion US crop is exported, though relatively little of it to Europe, where opposition to genetically modified foods is the strongest.

Carter said many consumers would recognise the Arctic Apple label to mean the fruit was genetically engineered. Some growers, particularly organic ones, worry that the anti-browning gene will spread to their apples. That is unlikely, Carter said, because apple pollen does not drift very far – though it can when carried by bees – and because apple seeds falling on the ground do not usually result in a tree growing. (Most reproduction of apple trees is by grafting.)

Not everyone in the conventional apple business is opposed to the apples. John Rice of the Rice Fruit Co., a large apple packer in Pennsylvania, said he thought the nonbrowning trait would help growers and packers. “We discard an awful lot of fruit for even minor bruising,” he said.

He also said the industry’s strident reaction to the Arctic Apple could discourage research into using genetic engineering for even more important goals, like disease or pest resistance. There are few genetically engineered fruits and vegetables on the market. Most papayas are genetically engineered to resist a virus. Some insect-resistant sweet corn and virus-resistant squash is sold. A virus-resistant plum tree has cleared regulatory hurdles but the plums have not yet been offered for sale.

Carter said the Arctic Apple had supporters in the apple business but that they were afraid of attracting unwanted attention. Half of Okanagan’s 45 investors are in the fruit tree business, he said. And one big grower and packer in Washington state has planted 8 acres of Arctic Apples under a permit, so that it will be ready to begin selling apples once regulatory approval is obtained.

“Nobody wants to be first in this business,” he said. “If it’s successful, all the big guys will be piling in to be second.”

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