Radio Staff & Newsroom
Wed January 8, 2014
This GMO Apple Won't Brown. Will That Sour The Fruit's Image?
Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 6:29 pm
If you (or your children) turn up your nose at brown apple slices, would you prefer fresh-looking ones that have been genetically engineered?
Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, in British Columbia, Canada, certainly hopes so. His company has created the new, non-browning, "Arctic" apples, and he's hoping for big orders from despairing parents and food service companies alike. Food service companies, he says, 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.
"Our concern is marketing," says Christian Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents apple growers in the major apple-producing areas of the Pacific Northwest.
Schlect sees a risk that consumers who are viscerally opposed to genetic engineering will avoid apples entirely, and the industry will have to spend precious time and money keeping GMO apples separate from their conventional cousins.
The non-browning trait was created by inserting extra copies of genes that the apple already possessed. These genes normally create an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase, which is responsible for the chemical reaction that causes browning.
Yet when 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 reaction. (Like any apple, these apples eventually will go brown from normal rotting. It's the immediate "enzymatic browning" that's blocked.)
Okanagan Specialty Fruits licensed this technique from the Australian research institute where it was first discovered.
At the moment, there are non-browning versions of Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has allowed Okanagan Specialty Fruits to produce them in test plots covering a few acres in the states of New York and Washington. Carter says his company now is working to put the trait in Fuji and Gala apples, too.
The USDA has studied the apple and released a preliminary conclusion that Arctic apples are pretty much as harmless as conventional ones. That assessment is now open for public comment, and thousands of people have taken advantage of the opportunity — most of them fiercely opposed to it.
Even if the USDA approved the apples within a few months, as Carter hopes, it would take several years before commercial quantities of non-browning apples could show up in grocery stores.
Okanagan Specialty Fruits does not plan to grow large quantities of apples itself. It will license its variety to commercial growers, charging them a one-time fee of $1,500 per acre of trees. Carter says this is comparable to the license fees that growers currently pay for the right to produce patented varieties such as Gala or Fuji.
Carter is convinced that most consumers will be curious to try the apple. The company conducted focus groups in four U.S. cities, from San Francisco to Raleigh, N.C. The company showed consumers the apple, explained that it was genetically engineered, and asked them, "Would you buy it?"
"Typically, it's about 80-20," says Carter. "80 percent say, 'Fantastic, bring it on.' And 20 percent say, 'Hmm. I don't think I like genetic engineering.' But they all eat it. Even if they were a nay-sayer that was never going to eat any GM fruit, they will eat a slice. It's not like we have to ask them to eat a slice. They will ask if they can eat a slice."
Carter thinks it may be more difficult convincing grocery stores to stock the new apple. Even if only a minority of their customers are viscerally opposed to it, grocery stores are risk-averse, and don't want to drive away any business at all.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
A small Canadian company has used genetic engineering to create an apple that doesn't go brown when you slice it. It's waiting for approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture but it faces opposition. And some apple producers are worried that this new product will taint the apple's wholesome, all-natural image.
NPR's Dan Charles is here to talk about this. And, Dan, first of all, does the world really need an apple that doesn't brown?
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: I'm sure we would do just fine without it. But I have heard of children who will not eat an apple slice that's turned brown at all. And food service companies that serve fresh cut apples, they actually go ahead and treat them with chemicals to make sure they keep looking fresh.
I talked to the president of the company that's making these new apples, these Arctic Apples. It's Okanagan Specialty Fruits in British Columbia, Canada. His name is Neal Carter and he is banking on the idea that those fruit service companies will be interested because they won't have to buy those chemicals.
NEAL CARTER: You know, right now to make fresh cut apple slices and put them in a bag, 35, 40 percent of the cost is the antioxidant treatment they use to make it. So you could make a fresh cut apple slice 30 percent cheaper.
CORNISH: So explain how the Arctic Apple works. How do they do this?
CHARLES: It's interesting. There is an enzyme in the apple that actually produces the browning reaction. And what they did was, the scientists inserted extra copies of the genes that produce that enzyme. And instead of making more, the extra copies actually provoked the apple to shut down action of all those genes - so no enzyme, no browning. Now, the thing is the apple would eventually still rot but it's that immediate browning reaction that stops.
CORNISH: Now how soon could this actually show up in stores?
CHARLES: It's not exactly clear. The USDA has allowed some test plots. It studied the apple and released assessment that says this looks harmless to us. We see no reason to keep regulating it. People are welcome to comment on that assessment and thousands of people have. Most of the comments say: I don't trust it, I don't want this approved. So it's up to the USDA whether to go ahead and approve this and that could happen within a few months. Even after that it would take a few years before there were lots of Arctic apples for sale.
CORNISH: But given the opposition you've described here. It seems like it would be risky for this company to bring it to market.
CHARLES: That is worrying a lot of other people in the apple industry. Some industry groups have could out against this apple, saying it would create hassles. They'd have to keep the genetically-engineered apples separate from the regular apples. And they worry that consumers who don't like GMOs will just be turned off of apples entirely. Now, how many would that be? Not clear.
Neal Carter, the company's president, says they've done market research. They've put actual apples in front of people and asked them: What do you think, would you buy this apple?
CARTER: Typically, it's about 80/20. Eighty percent say fantastic, you know, bring it on. And 20 percent say, hmm, I don't think if like genetic engineering. But they all eat it. Even if they were a naysayer that never was going to eat at any GM fruit, they will eat a slice. Or it's not like we have to ask them to eat a slice. They will ask if they can eat a slice.
CHARLES: So Carter is so much worried about the consumers. He's worried about the grocery stores, whether they will stock this apple because they worried about alienating any consumers, even that 20 percent. They don't want to lose any of them.
CORNISH: Dan Charles, our agribusiness gumshoe. Dan, thanks so much.
CHARLES: Nice to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.