“Arctic apples,” apples genetically modified to keep from turning brown when sliced or bruised, were approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for commercial planting on February 13.
Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the developer of the new non-browning apple, says it hopes the added feature will appeal to consumers and food service companies and could reduce the number of apples discarded because of bruising.
The USDA found Arctic apple are safe to plant and nutritionally equivalent to other apples.
Arctic Apples’ Good Qualities
Arctic apples are special for a number of reasons, says Greg Conko, executive director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Nearly all the genetically engineered crops on the market to date have “input” traits, such as insect or disease resistance and the ability to withstand certain herbicides—characteristics primarily targeted at farmers, not consumers. Consumers benefit indirectly from improved input traits in the form of lower costs and more variety.
Conko says producers believe consumers won’t fully appreciate the value of biotechnology and genetic engineering until they start seeing crops with “output” traits benefitting them directly.
“Although the Arctic apple’s non-browning trait isn’t an earth-shattering benefit like improved nutrition or food safety, I do think its approval signals a definite shift in the market and that we’ll start seeing a lot more output traits over the coming decade,” Conko said.
Victory for Small Firms
Conko says it’s noteworthy that the non-browning apple was produced by a relatively small firm.
“You can count on one hand the number of genetically engineered crop plants not developed by big multinational seed companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, and Pioneer Hi-Bred,” said Conko. “It’s unusual for small companies like Okanagan to develop and gain approval for a genetically engineered plant because the regulatory testing and approval process is so lengthy and expensive.”
“Historically, only very large companies have been able to afford to take a product through the approval process, a fact that has resulted in six major companies dominating the GE crop business,” Conko said. “So it’s nice to see a small firm be willing and able to take on the big boys and actually get to market, even if it did take them a decade to develop the product and test it thoroughly and then [had to] wait three more years just for the USDA to review the application and approve it.”
As Natural As Nature
The genes inserted into the Arctic apple were all taken from other apple species.
“Anti-biotechnology campaigners like to scare consumers about genetic engineering being unnatural and crossing some mythical species boundary,” Conko said. “There’s nothing at all unsafe about moving genes between unrelated organisms, because DNA works exactly the same way in every living organism. Mother Nature moves genes between species, genera, families, and kingdoms all the time.
“But I’m hoping consumers are reassured by the fact there’s nothing about the Arctic apple that couldn’t have been accomplished with normal breeding, although with normal breeding, it most likely would have taken many decades to accomplish instead of just one,” Conko said.
Conko notes the ultimate success of the Arctic apple in the market is yet to be determined, but he says public opinion is beginning to turn and consumers are more receptive to biotechnology in food and agriculture.
“So, whether or not the Arctic apple becomes a commercial success, I’d like to think consumers will accept it or reject it solely on the basis of whether they think the product offers good value for money, and not on the basis of superstition and scaremongering,” Conko said.
Biotech for Environmentalism
Todd Myers, environmental director of the Washington Policy Center, says the Arctic apple is just one of many examples of how biotechnology improves agriculture and reduces waste.
“Instead of simply throwing browned apples in the trash, people can eat them, reducing waste,” Myers said. “That is the story of biotechnology crops: allowing farmers to do more with less. Ironically, the very environmentalists who claim to oppose waste are those who too often engage in anti-science fearmongering that is bad for the economy and the environment.”
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.