<b>(iStock images/Jared Johnson/Good Fruit Grower illustration)

(iStock images/Jared Johnson/Good Fruit Grower illustration)

As the first genetically engineered apple hits the market, it may look like the fruit industry is staking out sides in the GMO debate.

Okanagan Specialty Fruits hopes to find customers willing to pay a premium for its Arctic apples that don’t brown after slicing. Meanwhile, many growers are eager to reassure consumers that their conventional apples remain naturally delicious.

But that debate is likely to become more confusing as new technologies blur the lines between conventional crossbreeding and genetic engineering.

Advances in genomics are happening faster than regulators, consumers and farmers can keep up, bringing new opportunities to reduce pesticide use and grow better fruit along with growing confusion about what we mean when we say genetic engineering, or GE.

Forget “Frankenfoods.”

Today’s bioengineers no longer need to blast genes from fish into tomatoes to increase cold tolerance; they are editing plant DNA directly with the precision of a scalpel. And conventional crossbreeding today is often less conventional than you’d think, thanks to DNA sequencing and trait tests used to plan crosses.

The potential application of emerging technologies for crop improvement is vast and, for this issue, I looked at two research efforts that are using genetic engineering tools unimaginable just a few years ago to enhance the disease resistance of fruit crops.

It remains to be seen if growers and consumers will embrace genetically edited Chardonnay or apples bred with a GE ancestor. But both cases offer a snapshot of the benefits that the new era of biotechnology brings to the fruit industry, as it also muddies longstanding GMO battle lines and challenges out-of-date regulatory strategies.

“We’ve been having these discussions for decades, predictably, because of the continuum of these technologies. The current technology was unthinkable two or 10 years ago, and we can’t imagine what the next technology will be,” said Jim McFerson, director for the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center. He also serves on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Genetic Resources Advisory Council.

“Now we have this elegant process in which we can take one gene and insert it and voila … Now we have a pink pineapple and Arctic Apples that don’t brown. So what?” McFerson said. “The question is, when do we deploy these resources and who is going to pay for it?”

McFerson and many other scientists see GE techniques as neutral tools — not inherently good or bad. They see tools that can offer benefits or create problems, depending on the specific application. There are situations where GE is ideal.

You can add disease resistance to an already popular cultivar such as Chardonnay grapes or Honeycrisp apples. Or you can protect a species like papaya from a destructive virus when there is no known resistant relative from which to crossbreed.

But in specialty fruit, innovation is focused on high quality fruit — unlike commodity crops where GE has focused on horticulture. Developing strong new varieties still depends on the art and science of cross-breeding.

Genetic tools such as the ability to test for a specific trait are making the process faster and more strategic, but what makes an apple taste delicious appears too complex to be controlled by a few genes.

That’s why, despite the promise of biotechnology, McFerson says he’s most excited about the work of RosBREED, the effort to use advances in genomics to inform better crossbreeding.

“We still need to be humble and recognize that we don’t understand the genomics of many traits,” McFerson said. “The science (on GE) is clear that the benefits and the detriments are all overblown.”

In a major report on genetically engineered crops last year, the National Academy of Sciences pointed out that any new food crop — GE or conventionally bred — could have its own specific consequences on nutrition, the environment, or on the economic system in which it’s grown.

Moreover, the same novel trait, say increased resistance to pests, can now be introduced into a crop through both conventional and GE techniques.

For example, the process of using radiation or chemicals to cause mutations and then selecting plants with beneficial mutations for breeding has been done for decades and is considered by regulators to be conventional and organic. But there’s more unknown genetic changes created through this method than most GE techniques.

That’s one of the reasons why the National Academy of Sciences advocates for a regulatory process that focuses on the products — the crops themselves — rather than the technology that creates them because the scientists are innovating far faster than the regulators.

And emerging analysis tools will also help assess the safety of new crops. Scientists are figuring new ways to analyze everything that’s different about a GE crop. Soon, they will be able to compare not just the DNA but everything it encodes that creates a plant: proteins, enzymes, metabolites.

If the difference in the new GE crop is minor and unlikely to raise risks, that crop could be approved more easily than one that’s substantially different, the National Academy proposes in its report.

Currently, the use of some emerging GE techniques on crops may not fall under U.S. Department of Agriculture’s purview. The agency’s authority is based on old-school techniques that used plant viruses to deliver new DNA into crops.

Today, gene editing techniques can be done with no foreign DNA. That’s enticing to biotech companies but a big concern for GE opponents who want stricter regulation.

The Food and Drug Administration also consults on the safety of new GE foods. It bears repeating that no human health consequences have been found in hundreds of studies on the handful of commercialized GE crops.

But even as scientists do their due diligence to assess health and safety of new crops, social and economic questions will remain. Do growers and consumers want them? Vocal opposition from certain groups remains high — as comments on stories about Arctic Apples have shown.

But recent surveys show that while consumers want GE foods to be labeled, many may not really understand much about them. For example, a 2015 study found that while 82 percent of people wanted to see GE foods labeled, 80 percent believed that all food containing DNA should be labeled as well.

That lack of understanding can be embraced as opportunity — educate consumers as to why your GE apples are safe and beneficial and they’ll buy — or interpreted as a warning to steer clear until public perception improves.

“Really on a practical level, it’s a marketing question. You can argue until you are blue in the face about what’s ‘natural.’ The products may be indistinguishable, but the process is important to some people,” McFerson said.

So what does this mean for growers? Will they be able to continue to dodge GE questions by growing conventionally bred varieties or will the power and precision of emerging tools mean that biotechnology will be creeping into all breeding? Some might say it already is. •

– by Kate Prengaman