The future of the apple: A small biotech company could change the debate on GMOs
Photo by Alessio Maffeis via Creative Commons
In the terms of apple history the Granny Smith is a recent creation. The first known record of Granny Smith propagation dates back to 1886, where Maria Ann “Granny” Smith selectively bred a European red apple (malus domestica) with a European crab apple (M. sylvestris). Since that time Granny Smiths have become one of the world’s most popular apples. And, it is a reputation well deserved. Granny Smiths managed to be tart without being bitter, are both crisp and juicy, and their light green skin sets them apart from their red cousins. Love for the Granny Smith is global and can take on an even quasi-religious appreciation in countries like Australia—where Maria Ann Smith was from—and the United States. In America, the Granny Smith remains a top selling apple. This is not only because of individual consummation, but because it is often the apple of choice for the most American of foods: apple pie.
The Granny Smith does come with a defect. Like all apples, after a few minutes of being sliced open the Granny Smith begins to turn brown. This transformation is largely a cosmetic occurrence. Mild browning of an apple slice has little effect on its taste or nutritional value. Nevertheless, browning is an undesirable trait which apples consumers reject. Americans love apples, but they won’t eat bruised or mildly brown ones. And, what Americans won’t eat, businesses won’t sell.
This limitation to the Granny Smith may end up being a thing of the past. Recently, a small breeding and biotech company from Canada—Okanagan Specialty Fruits, Inc. (OSF)—has developed a way to keep the Granny Smith, along with the Golden Delicious—and potentially all other apples—from browning. Apples have an enzyme referred to as polyphenol oxidase. This enzyme—once exposed to the open air—causes the apple’s interior to transform from a bright white into a grainy brown. Through genetic engineering OSF has managed to silence the enzyme. No active enzyme means no browning; it’s that simple.
OFS is looking to have these apples—which it has named Artic Apples—approved throughout North America in the next two years, possibly sooner. However, even if approved by the regulatory bodies OFS could face hurdles in taping into new apple markets; the main one possibly being consumers. Genetically modified foods are still a hard sell for many Americans. GMOs have been consumed in the United States since the 1990s, but most of these exist in processed food, are not easily identifiable, and for some, highly controversial. Arctic Apples would be the first genetically modified food on the market whose modification is directed specifically at the desires of consumers. In this way Okanagan Specialty Fruits is trying to not only introduce new apples to the public, but trying to change people’s perception of biotechnology.
Whatever one thinks about Okanagan Specialty Fruits it is quite clear that they are no Monsanto. OFS is an extremely small company with a total of seven employees. They hardly fit the description of the corporate monolith that is usually associated with genetically modified foods. The company was started by a married couple—Neal and Louisa Carter—who worked for years as orchardists. Neal Carter, who acts as the company’s president, has experience as a bioresource engineer—including working with crops and farms in the developing world. Even though the company was not required to do so, it willingly handed over its research on the safety of Arctic Apples to the FDA for review. The company is also voluntarily labeling its GMO apples as Arctic Apples, and has on its website tools to help consumers identify genetically modified produce. In no way does the company hide the fact that they are involved in biotech—if anything, they proudly display it like a genetically engineered badge of honor. In terms of business practices, these moves appear unconventional, and in some cases even bold. However, OFS is confident that the research and safety testing around the Arctic Apple will vindicate it in the marketplace, and eventually biotechnology in general.
There are others who disagree. Both the U.S. Apple Association and the Northwest Horticultural Council—which represents the tree-fruit industry in and around Washington State—oppose the introduction of Arctic Apples. The reason isn’t because they view the fruit as dangerous or that even growing Arctic Apples could potentially be ecologically harmful. It’s because they fear that if the negative public perception around GMOs gets associated with apples the industry as a whole could suffer. A large number of Americans are extremely hesitant toward biotechnology—with a very active and vocal minority opposed to it in all its forms. Apples have a reputation of being healthy. The saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is the type of folksy prescription that the apple industry adores. With apple consumption declining in the United States, producers are reluctant to take a gamble on a product that could potentially cause a backlash for the entire industry. Again, what Americans won’t eat, businesses won’t sell.
In a certain sense the public’s reluctance to embrace GMOs is understandable. Numerous consumer groups, natural food advocates, and environmentalists have sounded the alarm bells against them. Arctic Apples themselves have experienced their share of dire predictions. For example, in an article published in The New York Times, Lucy Sharatt—coordinator for the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network—described why her group was opposed the Arctic Apples: if Arctic Apples fail to turn brown then it will be impossible to tell fresh ones from rotten ones; the whole project was a biotech gimmick to move apples into plastic bags so that they could be turned into an “industrialized product” rather than a whole food.
There is problem with Sharatt’s comment. She gets the science of apple browning completely wrong. As mentioned above, apple browning is caused by the existence of an enzyme that when exposed to the open air through slicing or superficial bruising causes the apple to brown. Apple rotting is something different entirely. Apples rot because of the existence of fungi and bacteria. Arctic Apples will still rot—as nothing in their genetic make-up will make them impervious to fungi and bacteria—and it will be easy to detect rot because it will be nearly impossible to mistake it for superficial browning.
Karl Haro von Mogel, editor for the science blog Biofortified.org—a website dedicated to giving people accurate information on genetic engineering—has a more balanced and informed perspective on Arctic Apples. For him the crop is “ecologically neutral.” The modified trait does not target pest or other potential species, and the risk of the crop contaminating neighboring farms is low. Genetically modified Arctic Apples could be grown next to an organic farm without any real risk of accidently violating organic standards. If anything, the crop could end up helping the environment. Each year a significant proportion of the apple crop is culled due to browning. If those apples were brought to market instead of thrown out it would not only prevent food from being wasted, but could also drive down the costs of apples for consumers. As for the health risks, Haro von Mogel thinks the introduction of Arctic Apples could be beneficial. The browning effect of apples limits their availability to consumers. Rarely—if ever—are apples offered in salad bars, sold in slices, or used in displays. The onset of browning just a few minutes after the apples have been sliced open makes it near impossible to utilize the crop for these purposes. “I once interviewed an apple breeder at the University of Minnesota, and he said that he is in competition with candy bars. That they have to convince people that (they) should eat apples rather than candy bars,” Haro von Mogel said.
In any case, Washington State is will have to deal with the coming political and economic changes that Arctic Apples could bring. When it comes to apples Washington State is North America’s powerhouse. According to the USDA in 2007 Washington dedicated 165,215 acres of farmland to apples. The only other state that came close was New York with a distant second at 49,996 acres of farmland. Washington uses more apple acres than the next five states combined, and it is Washington—and farmers along the states that border it—that provide 60 percent of the apples for the entire country. If Arctic Apples do eventually make it to market, their success or failure will largely depend on how growers in Washington react to them.
In addition, Washington State is next in line to face another intense battle over the labeling of genetically modified foods. After the failure of proposition 37 in California, anti-GMO activists moved their battle to Washington. Washington’s initiative 522, which has similar wording as California’s proposition 37, would require the labeling of all genetically modified foods. Activists in favor of initiative 522 have been successful in collecting enough signatures to put the matter before legislatures. If elected representatives fail to act, the law will go before the public as a referendum in November. The role that Arctic Apples will play on the I-522 debate—if any—has yet to be determined, but if the law is passed it is bound to have an influence on the future of the apples.
What is clear is that consumers, farmers, environmentalists, scientists, basically anyone concerned with food issues today, will all have to deal to the rapidity of advances in the biotechnology, the emergence of smaller biotech companies, and what these changes could mean for the future of food.
Marco Rosaire Rossi is a graduate of the University for Peace in Costa Rica and a resident of Olympia.