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The Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden  keep their white flesh after slicing.

The Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden keep their white flesh after slicing.

Photo Courtesy of Neal Carter

The core idea is simple and elegant.

Take iconic apple varieties, ones people know well and like, and fix the problems they have. Get rid of the apple scab in McIntosh, the bruises on Golden Delicious and Granny Smith, the fireblight in Gala, the bitter pit in Honeycrisp, the storage scald in Red Delicious. Wouldn’t that be easier than constantly developing new cultivars, selecting and evaluating them for years, going through the long process of introducing them to market, and slowly finding out that they, too, have faults?

That was the logic followed by Neal Carter and a small group of ­Canadian apple growers in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley when they formed Okanagan Specialty Fruits in 1996. Since then, the company has grown to 45 shareholders, half of which are tree fruit growers and industry participants.

The only clinker in the scenario is the process for improving an apple without using conventional breeding techniques is called genetic engineering.

It is not clear how widely opposed the general public is to biotech. Europeans seem opposed. But American consumers now, virtually without comment, eat the products from some 250 million acres of genetically modified corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, and the tropical fruit papaya.

The most vocal opponents are organic growers and the Organic Consumers Association, who are against any manifestation of genetic engineering and steadfastly maintain that organic production, which forbids any use of the process, is the way of the future.

Some in the apple industry are fearful that genetically engineered apples—even a few here and there—might provide enough fuel to undermine the wholesome image apples enjoy and smash the entire market for apples.

No resolution seems in sight. But every so often, the issue is resurrected as Okanagan Specialty Fruits’s new apples, Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny, reach a new hurdle on the road to clearance by government agencies that protect the public from unsafe products. That happened again in mid-July.

Another step

On July 13, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service opened a 60-day comment period. It is part of a new review process that gives two opportunities for public input. This is the first of two, and the second may come later this year.

Part of the public review process is the posting of the entire 163-page petition, available for all to read and comment on.

Despite protests from many in the apple industry who say the gain is not worth the risk, the process is continuing that could bring Arctic apples into orchards as early as next year and consumer markets within three years.

Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny are the names of two nonbrowning apple cultivars that have been produced, using biotechnology, by ­Okanagan Specialty Fruits, Inc., of Summerland, British Columbia.

Carter, founder and president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, in a phone interview with Good Fruit Grower, said the goal is to obtain a FONSI—a Finding of No Significant Impact—which would allow the apples to come to market in the same nonregulated way all apples are marketed.

In a company press release, Carter said: “We have approximately ten years of real-world field trial experience demonstrating that our Arctic trees behave no differently from conventional trees, and that Arctic apples are compositionally and nutritionally similar to conventional apples,” said Carter. “It’s not until an Arctic apple is bruised, bitten, or cut, and doesn’t brown that the Arctic difference becomes very clear.”

Arctic apples were created by inserting a reversed orientation of a gene, thus canceling, or “silencing,” the normal gene that causes an apple to create polyphenol oxidase (PPO), the enzyme the causes browning when the fruit is bruised, bitten, or cut.

Opportunities ahead

“Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny are just our first nonbrowning ­varieties,” Carter said. “Any apple variety can be transformed this way. Nonbrowning Fuji and Gala are coming.”

In the future, Carter would like to attack apple scab, fireblight, and storage scald in the same manner.

“Scab resistance in apples has been achieved through crossbreeding resistant crab apple varieties with commercial varieties,” Carter said. “However, the resulting varieties have not been of high quality and are not well accepted by consumers.

“OSF plans to introduce the scab-resistant gene identified from crab apples into popular commercial varieties. Here again, we will follow the breeding approach we used with Arctic apples, whereby only apple genes would be used to manipulate apple varieties to create unique new varieties offering scab resistance.”

Apple industry organizations have opposed introduction of the nonbrowning apples. They say browning is not a serious enough issue to risk turning the public against apples. Carter disagrees. “Browning is a huge drag on the industry,” he said. “Think of the dishes chefs would prepare for use in restaurants if the apples wouldn’t turn brown when they’re served. Our goal is the same as everyone else in the industry—to increase consumption of apples.”

People would happily pick up a fresh-looking slice of apple from a platter, he said, while they hesitate to pick up a whole apple and eat it. The whole apple is more than they want to eat, and they’ll take none rather than take a bite and throw the rest away.

Long process

Interestingly, the decision to develop a nonbrowning apple—and the actual creation of it—took place years before the huge growth in the market for fresh apple slices. The challenge in that business was how to keep the apple fresh and not turn brown, and the solution now used is a solution of antioxidants like calcium and ­ascorbic acid.

In tests, Carter said, Arctic apple slices rinsed in slightly chlorinated water and put in plastic bags and refrigerated lasted about 15 days. That, he said, is long enough for a mom who wants to cut a supply of apples on the weekend to last her kids for the week’s school lunches. “With ­commercial-type packaging, it is highly likely that longer shelf life is quite feasible so that Arctic varieties would lend themselves to many foodservice applications—a place where the apple industry doesn’t currently get its fair share of the plate,” Carter said.

All that aside, how relevant is the argument, “we don’t need a nonbrowning apple?”

“Do we really need a redder sport of Gala?” Carter asks. “We don’t know what we need. It’s up to the market to decide that. Let the consumers decide.”

John Rice, at Rice Fruit Company in Aspers, Pennsylvania, was quoted in an article in the New York Times saying he thought the nonbrowning trait would help growers and packers. “We discard an awful lot of fruit for even minor bruising,” he said.

Carter said he feels a sense of confidence. “We do anticipate it being deregulated,” he said. “We’re turning off an apple enzyme. It’s as simple as that.

“What gives me confidence is that APHIS has changed its process to give people more opportunity to submit comments but still makes science-based decisions. Even with all the headwinds, a lot of genetically modified crops are being planted, and the government finds they are safe.”

If and when Arctic apples come to market, they will not carry a label stating they are genetically engineered—no such products do—but they will likely carry a brand name. And Carter believes that by the time the products make it to retail, consumers will know that Arctic apples were developed using biotechnology.

Currently, Arctic apples grow only in field trials, which have been going on for more than ten years. “It’s hard to show off trees or fruit until they are deregulated,” Carter said. There are growers who have made some plantings.

Once deregulation occurs, Carter said, commercial partners will test them further—perhaps 10 to 15 growers in the United States and 5 to 10 in Canada. “At this time, the company does not plan to license the apples to one large entity or make it into a club variety,” he said.

The company is looking for potential commercial partners—nurseries, growers, packers and shippers, retail and foodservice partners, fresh-cut and other processors.