Would You Buy a Genetically Modified Apple that Doesn’t Go Brown?

Such a product recently cleared federal regulatory hurdles.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Feb. 20, 2015, 7:17 a.m.

Big news in the apple world: The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has ap­proved the plant­ing of ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied apples that won’t turn brown when sliced. These apples, branded the “Arc­tic Apple,” could ap­pear on store shelves in just a few years.

But why does the world needs a brown­ing-res­ist­ant apple? Sliced, it ap­pears, is bet­ter than whole.

Crit­ics will al­ways point to the holes in the re­search, but those holes aren’t eas­ily filled.

“A whole apple is too big of a com­mit­ment,” says Neal Carter, the pres­id­ent of Okanagan, the small Ca­na­dian com­pany be­hind the GMO apple. “We watched ex­plos­ive growth in the fresh-cut busi­ness. Ready-to-eat salads and sliced-and-diced fruits and ve­get­able have be­come a sig­ni­fic­ant part of the pro­duce busi­ness. And apples don’t par­ti­cip­ate that much.” He’d like to change that.

Carter says he has spoken to around 40 or 50 re­port­ers since the USDA an­nounce­ment. Clearly this story isn’t a scoop. It’s a sen­sa­tion. But it re­mains to be seen if the me­dia in­terest in Arc­tic Apples is due to its gee-whiz ap­peal or if there is genu­ine ap­pet­ite for these fruits. It will take at least un­til 2016 for the first batch of Arc­tic Apples to be ready for sale. (It takes a few sea­sons for a tree to pro­duce high-qual­ity fruit.) And Carter is not ready to an­nounce dis­tri­bu­tion plans.

When apple flesh is ex­posed to air, it re­leases an en­zyme called poly­phen­ol ox­i­dase (PPO). Just as iron ox­id­izes in­to rust when it comes in con­tact with wa­ter, white apple flesh turns brown when in con­tact with PPO. Okanagan sup­presses the apple gene that codes for PPO. The pro­cess was dis­covered in 1995, de­rived from the ge­net­ics of a spe­cial grape that doesn’t go brown. The res­ult: an apple that has 90 per­cent less PPO activ­ity when sliced com­pared with non-GMO vari­et­ies. Carter se­cured the world­wide li­cens­ing rights for the tech­no­logy in 1997. Since then, the com­pany has been work­ing on per­fect­ing the pro­cess and clear­ing the fed­er­al reg­u­lat­ory hurdles.

Meet­ing reg­u­la­tions, however, is not so simple.

Three agen­cies share the re­spons­ib­il­ity of reg­u­lat­ing ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied foods and products — the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, and the USDA. Be­cause the Arc­tic Apple is tech­nic­ally a plant, and more spe­cific­ally, the tech­no­logy it uses is de­rived from meth­ods to make pesti­cide-res­ist­ant crops, it falls un­der the pur­view of the USDA.

The USDA is primar­ily con­cerned about the im­pact a GMO plant has on the eco­sys­tem — wheth­er the GMO plant will be­come a pest, af­fect in­sects, or dis­rupt eco­sys­tems if taken across state lines. In its de­term­in­a­tion, the USDA found that the Arc­tic Apple is “un­likely to pose a plant pest risk and there­fore are no longer sub­ject to our reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing the in­tro­duc­tion of cer­tain [ge­net­ic­ally en­gin­eered] or­gan­isms.” The USDA veri­fied Okanagan’s claim of re­duced brown­ing, de­term­ined that the Arc­tic Apples were the nu­tri­tion­al equi­val­ent of a sim­il­ar non-GMO vari­ety, and found that the apples “pose no more of a plant pest risk … than con­ven­tion­al apple fruit.” What the USDA is say­ing, es­sen­tially, is this: The Arc­tic Apple is no more dan­ger­ous to the en­vir­on­ment than any oth­er apple. It can be grown and sold.

But groups that op­pose the in­tro­duc­tion of more ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied fruit in­to the U.S. mar­ket aren’t con­fid­ent in the level of over­sight. “The USDA glossed over the pos­sib­il­ity of un­in­ten­tion­al ef­fects as­so­ci­ated with the tech­no­logy used to en­gin­eer these apples,” Wen­o­nah Haut­er, the dir­ect­or of the Food and Wa­ter Watch, an ad­vocacy group, wrote in a press re­lease im­me­di­ately after the USDA made its de­cision.

Jen­nifer Kuzma, the co-dir­ect­or of the Ge­net­ic En­gin­eer­ing and So­ci­ety Pro­gram at North Car­o­lina State Uni­versity, ex­plains that the cur­rent reg­u­lat­ory frame­work in­vites such cri­ti­cism. “USDA’s whole as­sess­ment pro­cess is really centered around wheth­er it is a plant pest or not, and that’s where the crit­ics have prob­lems,” she says. “The USDA doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily look for the in­dir­ect eco­lo­gic­al ef­fects or the hu­man health ef­fects, be­cause their law is to look at the plant pest prop­er­ties.”

But the eco­lo­gic­al as­sess­ments can only go so far: Should the USDA test every bird who might come to eat a piece of this apple? Crit­ics will al­ways point to the holes in the re­search, but those holes aren’t eas­ily filled. “It’s im­possible to test for every single in­dir­ect eco­lo­gic­al ef­fect,” she says. “It’s really com­plic­ated.”

And crit­ics can find more fuel in the fact that the FDA’s pro­cess for reg­u­lat­ing GMO foods is com­pletely vol­un­tary (as is a pro­du­cer’s de­cision to la­bel a food a GMO). Okanagan says the com­pany star­ted the vol­un­tary con­sulta­tion pro­cess with the FDA in 2011, and they ex­pect the re­view to fin­ish this year.

GMO foods can carry neg­at­ive con­nota­tions. In a re­cent Pew sur­vey com­par­ing the views of the gen­er­al pub­lic with those of sci­ent­ists, 57 per­cent of the gen­er­al pub­lic say ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied foods are “gen­er­ally un­safe to eat.” Eighty-eight per­cent of sci­ent­ists, however, said they were safe. “This is the largest opin­ion dif­fer­ence between the pub­lic and sci­ent­ists,” Pew noted in the sur­vey.

Com­pan­ies are aware that GMO makes for bad mar­ket­ing. In Novem­ber, Mc­Don­ald’s passed on the op­por­tun­ity to use sim­il­ar brown­ing-res­ist­ant pota­toes. “Mc­Don­ald’s USA does not source GMO pota­toes, nor do we have cur­rent plans to change our sourcing prac­tice,” a Mc­Don­ald’s rep­res­ent­at­ive told Cap­it­al Press, an ag­ri­cul­ture-in­dustry pub­lic­a­tion. When Her­shey’s ex­pan­ded in­to Europe in 2010, the candy man­u­fac­turer omit­ted GMO in­gredi­ents from products on the con­tin­ent (where GMO la­bels are re­quired). Whole Foods takes pains to la­bel products as GMO-free.

Though both pro­ponents and op­pon­ents of GMO foods tend to be vo­cal about food safety, a large part of the pop­u­la­tion has not made up their minds, Kuzma says. In a 2014 study on con­sumers’ thoughts on ge­net­ic­ally mod­i­fied rice, Kuzma and col­leagues found that about 40 per­cent of people “do not care about what tech­no­logy is ad­op­ted dur­ing pro­duc­tion as long as cer­tain be­ne­fits can be brought by the tech­no­logy.” But an­oth­er 25 per­cent of the par­ti­cipants, dubbed “New Tech­no­logy Re­jecters,” won’t budge in their thoughts to avoid GMO food. (Kuzma says she can’t say for sure if the rice find­ings would gen­er­al­ize to GMO apples). A sim­il­ar study on apples in 2009 found that con­sumers would be more likely to eat them if their pro­duc­tion was ad­vert­ised as hav­ing a lower en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact.

Arc­tic Apples are one of the the first GMO foods to be mar­keted dir­ectly to­ward con­sumers’ tastes. Most of the time, plants are en­gin­eered to res­ist pesti­cides or to re­duce waste. The most com­monly en­gin­eered foods — corn and soy­beans — are usu­ally pro­cessed in­to oils or be­fore they make it to the table. With the Arc­tic Apple, con­sumers will be eat­ing a whole GMO product. Aside for a failed GMO to­mato in­tro­duced in the 1990s, there have been few tests of such a product in the mar­ket­place.

“There’s go­ing to be sig­ni­fic­ant back­lash, but wheth­er it is go­ing to be more or less than these pre­vi­ous GMO foods,” Kuzma says. “I’m not sure.”

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