After 20 years of development, a Canadian company is expecting its first commercial crop of genetically modified apples in 2016 while awaiting approval to forge ahead with its third and latest variety, Arctic Fuji.
Okanagan Specialty Fruits plans to harvest and pack about 50 bins of Arctic Golden Delicious apples and plant its first Arctic Granny Smith apples this year.
The Summerland, British Columbia, company develops and produces apples genetically modified to not turn brown when sliced.
Specialty Fruits received approval for Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny apples from food and plant health agencies in both countries early in 2015 and planted about 15 acres of Goldens in Washington, said Neal Carter, company president and founder.
Those trees will yield a small crop this fall, while the company plans to plant significantly more acreage of both varieties in 2016, mostly in Washington, with increasing quantities in the following years in other states and Canada.
The company will test market the first apples from this year in a few select stores, but as it ramps up production, it will distribute to a variety of locations in both the U.S. and Canada, Carter said.
Carter declined to say which growers, packers or retailers will be working with Arctic apples.
At the same time, the firm expects U.S. approval sometime this year of its latest variety, the Arctic Fuji, with Canadian approval to follow within another year.
Specialty Fruits applied for U.S. deregulation for the Fuji on Dec. 31, 2015, in the form of an extension to the documents of previously approved varieties. The process should move faster than the original application, filed with the U.S. authorities in 2010 and the year after in Canada.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have regulatory oversight of biotechnology in America. In Canada, the two agencies involved are Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Once approvals are in place, the company may propagate and market the apples as if there was nothing different about them.
“What that approval means is it’s treated like any other apple variety,” Carter said.
At its laboratory in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Specialty Fruits alters the DNA of apples to silence an enzyme that causes apple flesh to brown when exposed to oxygen, such as when it’s sliced or bitten.
Specialty Fruits plans to apply for approval for an Arctic Gala by the end of 2017, with other varieties to follow. The company also is seeking agreements to grow and market its Arctic apples in other countries, a lengthy process just as it is in North America.
“The regulatory thing is quite onerous no matter where you are in the world,” Carter said.
In Mexico, the company is seeking a food safety assessment to ship Arctic apples in the country and slice them there, he said, while a group of Australians is discussing growing the apples with the company’s representatives.
The company both plants its own orchards and contracts with outside growers. Either way, and no matter where the trees are planted, Okanagan Specialty Fruits will own the trees and apples, unlike the royalty arrangements that usually accompany club varieties, Carter said.
Such a structure will give Specialty Fruits more control to prevent cross-pollination and other co-mingling of conventional fruit, one of the biggest objections to the controversial genetic techniques, Carter said.
So far, the company has contracted with two large, well-established growers, one in Washington, one in the Eastern U.S. Carter declined to specify the locations.
Okanagan Specialty Fruits was purchased in April 2015 by Intrexon Corp., a biotechnology company based in Germantown, Maryland. •
– by Ross Courtney