By C. J. Walke
Most MOFGA members and supporters I talk with at organic orcharding workshops and other events don’t seem to mind eating an apple that has a cosmetic blemish, such as insect feeding scars or a touch of scab. In fact, I’ve pulled MOFGA-grown apples out of storage for events in March and people devour them, wrinkles and all! However, the reality is that most consumers demand the “picture-perfect” apple we’ve come to expect on grocery shelves. That expectation drives the industry to give the people what they want, and new apples are on the horizon – Arctic Apples (http://www.arcticapples.com/).
Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., based in Summerland, British Columbia, has genetically engineered (GE) two varieties of “non-browning” apple to resist enzymatic browning. Enzymatic browning is the oxidation of apple flesh once it’s cut open and exposed it to oxygen in the air. Anyone who’s ever cut an apple has observed this process, as it results in browning.
Arctic Apples have been genetically engineered to halt this oxidation. A gene creates the polyphenol oxidase enzyme that causes initial browning in apples, but inserting extra copies of this gene (from apples) shuts down production of polyphenol oxidase. That is how Okanagan engineered these trees. The apples will eventually decompose like all other apples, but the initial oxidation is blocked by the excess genes, so your cut up apple looks white and “fresh” longer.
Okanagan has two varieties being considered for de-regulation by USDA so that they can be produced commercially in the United States: the Artic Granny (from Granny Smith) and Arctic Golden (from Golden Delicious). The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) held two public comment periods on its environmental assessment and plant risk assessment documents for these varieties from November 2013 to January 2014. A recent report showed nearly 80,000 public comments during this period, with the majority not supporting release of these GE varieties.
The assessments implemented by APHIS focus on whether these apples will create environmental and plant pest risks if introduced into the industry, not on the potential risks of GE organisms on the environment or human health. The USDA’s preliminary conclusion is that Artic Apples are as harmless as any other apple variety commercially grown and available on the market, and APHIS rejected the need for buffer strips to separate these apples from other orchard varieties. If Arctic Apples receive USDA approval, we could see them in the marketplace in 2015.
At arcticapples.com, developers of Arctic Apples tell why these apples will benefit the industry and the consumer, including “no yucky browning,” “more of the apple’s natural flavor shines through” and “without the yuck factor, more apples get eaten, promoting your better health and healthier weight.” Okanagan also notes that food service companies will no longer have to treat sliced apples with calcium ascorbate or other food preservatives. For example, using NatureSeal (a mix of calcium salts and vitamin C – see www.natureseal.com) can account for 35 to 40 percent of product costs.
According to Forbes magazine, industry estimates project that roughly $475 million a year is spent in foodservice and retail sales of pre-sliced apples in the United States. Data from USDA show that in 2011, about 238 million pounds of apples were processed into sliced apples – a significant increase from 146 million pounds in 2010. Since 2009, pre-dipped apple slices or wedges have been offered in the National School Lunch Program administered by the USDA, and McDonald’s Happy Meals have included sliced apples since 2012.
Opponents of these varieties cite similar concerns as expressed for all organisms being genetically engineered for the marketplace, such as potential cross-contamination from pollen, unknown impacts on the environment and human health, and insufficient testing conducted over short periods of time.
According to The Cornucopia Institute, Okanagan inserted not only extra copies of the polyphenol oxidase gene but also nptII, neomycin phosphotransferase type II gene, from E. coli Tn5 into Arctic Apples. This gene allows the GE apple tissue to grow on a medium containing the antibiotic kanamycin but confers no benefit to the apple plant. So every cell of every GE apple tree, including the fruit, will show resistance to kanamycin – an antibiotic commonly used to treat infections in humans. Eating an Arctic Apple could transfer the gene for kanamycin resistance into the human digestive system, says Cornucopia, possibly enabling bacteria in the human digestive system to develop kanamycin resistance – a major concern among medical professionals. The antibiotic-resistance gene could also spread to bacteria on the plant and in the soil. [2015 update: Others say that the kanamycin-resistance gene is not expressed in the fruit any more than it is expressed in non-GE fruit, but that it is expressed in the leaves. See http://www.nyshs.org/pdf/-NYFQ%202013.CMC/send%20CMC.NYFQ%20Fall%202013/Pages%208-10%20from%20NYFQ%20Book%20Fall%202013-4.pdf]
The U.S. Apple Association and apple growers in the Northwest are very concerned and do not support these varieties – not for health concerns, but for marketplace concerns. They worry that consumer distrust of GE foods will translate into distrust of apples altogether and will seriously impact fresh apple sales in the United States and abroad.
For the past 10 years, Okanagan has been growing test plots of Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden varieties, with USDA permits, on a few acres in New York and Washington state to see how the trees produce in different climates. The company is now working to engineer the same non-browning traits into Fuji and Gala apples. With USDA approval likely, we will soon see these apples on grocery store shelves, but only time will reveal their effects on the U.S. apple industry and on our health.
The Cornucopia Institute www.cornucopia.org/2013/12/crushed-nutsrotten-apples-pasteurized-nuts-gmo-apples-tell-fda-usda/
McClatchy DC www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/01/03/213500/genetically-altered-arctic-apples.html
C.J. Walke is MOFGA’s organic orchardist and librarian. You can address your orcharding questions to him at 568-4142 or firstname.lastname@example.org.