Growers of apples and other tree fruits, and those who market and promote the harvest of our industry’s orchards, need to give thought to a marketing issue that is hovering off on a far, but approaching, horizon.

How should we handle the eventual commercial introduction of trees that have been directly subjected in some way to the wonders of biotechnology?

This year marks the tenth anniversary of genetically engineered crops in commercial production in the United States. Soybeans, cotton, and corn have led the way.

Many people use the term “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) to refer to the products of this modern scientific advance. Recently, “GE crops” seems to be the preferred shorthand. (To me, this evokes a faint echo of the comforting slogan of the giant manufacturing company possessing those same initials, “We bring good things to life.”)

The phrase “genetic engineering” encompasses a spectrum of techniques. In tree crops, these might range from the introduction of foreign protein to simply identifying a useful gene within the same fruit species to be manipulated in the laboratory, saving time over traditional cultivar breeding methods.

The pace of genetics research on fruit trees at federal laboratories, land-grant universities, and private firms is accelerating, with government funding readily available. Washington State University is becoming a leader in this branch of biology for rosaceous crops. Its experts are now helping to map the DNA mosaic of the fruits common to our industry.

While not in commercial production now, scientists at various locations worldwide are working toward achieving such GE fruit advancements as protecting against specific crop diseases and pests, resisting frost damage, slowing internal decay, and even reducing calories. The implementation of GE technology should lead to improved fruit quality and a reduction in the use of traditional chemical pesticides for the very real benefit of both growers and consumers.

As a specific example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service has developed a transgenic plum tree, known as HoneySweet, that resists the disease plum pox virus, which has cost over $40 million in damage to growers of stone fruit in orchards located in Pennsylvania. Public comments on this advance are now being sought by ARS.

Biotechnology food is safe by all informed accounts. However, the general public remains uncertain, and some are highly skeptical. In Europe, citizen opposition to GE crops is especially strong. “Frankenfoods!” is the cry. Those living in the United States are more positive, but pockets of opposition even here can also be very intense.

Scientific logic and human emotion are not in perfect alignment. Some call for labeling as one answer to the consumer acceptance issue.

But should we label GE fruit? If so, do we label for its presence or its absence? How could it be segregated from the conventional product? What testing protocols might be required? And, at what cost?

On June 7, the Center for Food Safety, an opponent of biotechnology, filed suit in federal court demanding that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration impose mandatory labeling for all GE crops. The case is sure to rattle around the courts for some time.

Another labeling issue involves organics. Under current Department of Agriculture rules, GE crops are not allowed the label “USDA Organic.” How will this issue be handled as organic fruit production within our industry increases in both volume and financial importance?

And will GE fruit be approved for purchase by chain restaurants, many of which are known to be very sensitive to consumer reaction? What impacts could there be on our new fresh-sliced apple sales?

Apples play a special part in any debate in this country over food policy. Where soybeans and corn are generally blended into processed food products with a corresponding loss of identity, apples are usually sold as they come off the tree and eaten by children out of hand. Apples, not soybeans, are an iconic symbol of both good health and America.

We all need to start thinking now, both hard and creatively, on the various marketing issues that surely will arise when our leading-edge growers have the opportunity to plant their first commercial GE trees—whenever that might be. For, as these good things are brought to life, the buying public’s ultimate comfort with GE fruits will be the real test of the acceptance of this marvel of technology.