The recent approval by USDA of the Arctic apple brands wasn’t unforeseen by our industry. We have been preparing for months knowing that approval was coming.
Washington and other U.S. apple-producing states have provided comments and concerns to USDA during the evaluation process, but clearly marketing plays no role with approval, which is focused on the science, not consumer acceptance or need.
As an industry that has benefited tremendously from science, and frankly has some of the best agricultural scientists worldwide supporting our industry, I asked experts whom I respect immensely about the science behind the Arctic apple. And after several minutes of technical conversation, it’s crystal clear that the science is sound and they wonder “what the fuss is all about.” Having the experts opinion in hand, and knowing approval has been given, it’s time to move forward.
I’ve been around this industry for a long time and communications have advanced beyond my imagination. The days of the teletype are over as well as receiving a fax on heat treated paper; they have been replaced by instantaneous communication platforms available to almost every person worldwide.
Today we are all intertwined, possessing the vehicle in our hand to comment on anything to a vast listening public who create opinion, not necessarily based on science, but emotion with scant factual information. In today’s communication world, the vocal minority can play a significant role in influencing public opinion, and providing factual information often isn’t enough to combat the onslaught of negative publicity—and here is my issue.
From where I sit, most countries around the world produce apples with flat or decreasing consumption as supplies increase. Frankly, I feel more assets need to be allocated toward increasing consumption of fresh apples, rather than defending the debate within the consuming public on the merit of a genetically engineered (GE) apple.
I would also argue industry is providing consumers with higher quality, better apples through improved orchard practices, more consumer demanded varieties, and enhanced handling and storage techniques—so where is the need? However, USDA has opened the door to GE for the apple industry—fact. Differentiation and education will be imperative in the near future to answer the critics—fact. How we differentiate and educate are the topics requiring focus and will have an inherent cost to growers—a cost that isn’t recoverable.
Today the impact of a GE apple is a moot point—availability is zero and it will be at least three years before any commercial production could exist. If there is production in the future, the GE apple will be “branded”—that is, consumers “should” be aware they are buying a GE apple.
Often we focus our attention on U.S. consumers, but what about the 60-plus countries Washington exports over 40 million bushels to annually—what about their perceptions of a GE apple? How does the GE apple from only the U.S. affect their decision making? And how will foreign governments react to the introduction of a GE apple? Will governments be accepting, or will they prohibit the product?
Can and will other apple producing countries “throw U.S. apples under the bus” to promote their own products? And whose responsibility is it to convince consumers that Washington apples aren’t “altered” and remain the symbol of health and nutrition? And today you need to ask yourself—”now that the GE door is open for apples, is non-browning the end game?” What’s already in the pipeline, and how can this affect the competitive advantage we have in Washington provided by nature that ultimately could be replaced by science?
Today I can’t challenge USDA and science behind GE products. The recent approval is fact. But I can warn of the future impact to an industry that has worked for decades to build a brand around “The Best Apples on Earth” and is the symbol of health and nutrition. There’s always a cost, and ultimately, the grower pays.