Canadian firm seeks approval for transgenic, non-browning apple
News of application causes stir, but project is far from new.
Okanagan Specialty Fruits
Last April, Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. sent a package containing hundreds of pages of data and documents to the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Washington, D.C.
According to Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, located in Summerland, British Columbia, the company was seeking approval to produce and market two genetically modified varieties of apples called Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden. These Arctic apples do not turn brown when they are bruised or cut.
Seven months later, an Associated Press reporter found the application information and published a story that sent Carter’s phone ringing off the hook.
In an exclusive interview with Good Fruit Grower, Carter expressed surprise by the new attention on this warmed-over news.
After all, his company, which is a grower-supported, family-sized business, has been working on this project since 1997. The company has not hidden its objectives, but has plugged away at what he knew would be a long process. “We are extremely patient,” he said.
The trees involved—not just Granny Smith and Golden Delicious but also Fuji and Gala—were planted between 2002 and 2005 and the trees and fruit have been under assessment since 2004. Genetic modifications and development work has taken place since before 2002.
Carter explained why his company decided to shoot for non-browning apples when other choices could have been made. Why not make a scab-resistant McIntosh, a more-storable Honeycrisp, or a non-russeting Golden Delicious?
At the time the decision was made, he said, apple consumption had been declining for many years, but the advent of new varieties and fresh-cut apple slices showed promise for reversing that decline. The invention of “baby” fresh-cut carrots doubled fresh carrot consumption, and he and his fellow grower-investors thought fresh-cut, non-browning apples might do similarly for apple consumption.
Non-browning apples would do away with the costly process of bathing slices in chemical preservatives, making them healthier as well as easier and cheaper to make. Think of the benefit to a housewife who could, on a weekend, cut and bag the whole next week’s supply of apples for her kids to take to school.
Non-browning apples bring benefits to everybody along the food chain, from producers to consumers, Carter said. Unlike some genetic modifications like herbicide tolerance or insect resistance that benefit growers and those who supply GMO seeds and herbicides, non-browning apples have no on-going costs and benefit growers, handlers, processors, retailers, and consumers. Apples that won’t turn brown when bruised reduce losses that occur all along the line from producer to consumer.
And, of course, modifying apple varieties that consumers already know and like is a much more targeted approach than trying to breed new varieties that will never quite duplicate existing ones—and then having to convince consumers to accept them.
Carter knows that consumers have been warned away from genetically modified foods by critics who call them Frankenfoods, and that the Europeans have been very wary of GMO products. Still, some 250 million acres of genetically modified corn, soybeans, and other crops are grown each year, and people consume GMO corn syrup, GMO soybean and canola oil, and wear GMO cotton clothing.
Carter notes that, while his company’s apples are genetically modified, the genes that have been inserted into the apple trees are not foreign genes. They are apple genes.
“This approach is best described as precision breeding or gene therapy whereby plant breeders have developed molecular techniques to silence or over-express genes within the plant,” he said on the company Web site.
What makes apples turn brown, he said, is that cutting or bruising releases an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase (PPO), a protein contained in fruit cell vacuoles that attacks and consumes antioxidants and phenolics that are healthful for people to eat and that give aroma, color, and flavor to the apple. Far from being a threat to people, he said, the Arctic apples are more healthful and taste and smell better as well as looking better. The name Arctic is meant to convey this sense of far north pristine, natural crispness.
The PPO “gene manipulation” is, he said, an 800-base-pair sequence in the 70 million base pairs that make up the apple genome.
This gene is “silenced,” not removed, by a seemingly devious trick of turning it end to end. Just as a wave in water can be dampened when it meets an equal wave moving the opposite way, this gene is turned off by being paired with its own reverse copy.
Okanagan Specialty Fruits purchased rights to use this technology from the Australian government’s national research organization (CSIRO) that developed it.
Carter expects it will take at least two years for USDA APHIS to complete its very rigorous science-based assessment of the data submitted and it will likely be 2015 before consumers have access to any Arctic apples. Nurseries are ready to produce the trees, he said, but they are still working through who will plant the apples in their orchards and take them on to the final consumers.
“We’re not talking about remaking the whole apple world,” he said. “We’re not talking about millions of acres of apples, maybe more like a few thousand after 10 years.”
Nonetheless, he does refer to what the company is doing as “platform technology.” After non-browning Arctic apples, why not other health and wellness traits? Why not stacked genes, in which a single apple variety is improved in several ways? Why not pears and sweet cherries, which also have problems with browning?
In the longer run, Carter believes that the people in the younger generation aren’t as frightened by new technology as their Baby Boomer parents and that opposition to genetically modified plants will wane—at least in the United States and Canada. He believes the United States and Canadian governments will work together to provided “harmonized approval” to these two Arctic apple varieties, and that the company will be able to move ahead on other projects.
“The European Union has its own regulations, and we’re not even going to try there. Today, for a small company like ours, Europe would be a tough nut to crack,” he said.