Okanagan Specialty Fruit founder and president Neal Carter was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after getting the green light from federal regulators (click HERE), for his Arctic Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples, which use gene silencing to limit production of the enzyme polyphenol oxidase, which causes browning.
He added: “We really think this will be a game changer, particularly in foodservice [where operators often spray or dip sliced apples with ascorbic acid, citric acid, calcium salts, or a combination of the above; or use modified atmosphere packaging to reduce the oxygen to which the apples are exposed].”
"The cost savings will be significant, as the antioxidant treatment can account for between 30% and 40% of the cost of a bag of fresh cut apples."
Meanwhile, superficial damage caused during handling such as minor finger bruising, won’t show, which means perfectly good apples would not be thrown away unnecessarily, reducing food waste, he said, noting that Arctic apples also have the same nutritional content as their conventional counterparts.
Enzymatic browning and rotting/decomposition are two different things
However, he was keen to stress that “enzymatic browning – something that happens within minutes – is different from rotting, which is a process which comes much later, and is driven by mold and bacteria”.
In other words, Arctic apples rot like any other apples, and it’s actually easier to see when they are rotting (as opposed to bruised or browning), he claimed.
“So to say that ‘without natural browning, apples may look fresh when they are actually decaying” [as Friends of the Earth claimed last week] is just completely false,” added Carter, a bioresource engineer who founded Okanagan Specialty Fruits with his wife Louisa in 1996.
“The opposite is true – it’s easier to tell if Arctic apples are decaying.”
The technology is incredibly precise, we’re not ‘accidentally’ impacting other genes
But what about fears – expressed by several critics including the Consumers Union - that the gene silencing process is “dangerously imprecise… and could unintentionally impact genes that affect other functions in the plant”?
According to Carter: “To create non-browning Arctic varieties, our low PPO-producing gene sequence – dubbed GEN-03 – is inserted into the parent cultivar’s DNA. A promoter and terminator gene sequence start and end that transformation process. It is a very targeted and specific gene modification that silences the PPO enzyme but does not change any other aspect of the cultivar.”
Meanwhile, the notion that this is all happening in a black box is simply not true, he added: “It’s incredibly precise, that’s the whole point of it, so to anyone that says we’ve inadvertently clobbered this gene or that gene, sorry but that’s completely false. “
Cross pollination risks in perspective
Asked to address concerns about cross-pollination, he said that for a start, “apple trees aren’t weedy” (they don’t escape orchards to grow wild like some other crops can).
Second, while apple blossoms are pollinated by bees, the likelihood of bees transporting pollen from an Arctic orchard to a different orchard is very low.
However, if a conventional/organic apple tree were to be pollinated by Arctic pollen, Arctic genes would only be present in some of the resulting apples’ seeds – not in the fruits’ skin or flesh, he said, pointing out that apple trees are produced by grafting, not from seeds, which are not typically eaten or planted.
But even if someone were to attempt to grow a tree using these seeds, the ‘Arctic’ non-browning trait wouldn’t be expressed, he said.
“If seeds of other apple varieties have some Arctic apple genetic material, it doesn’t mean that they will produce Arctic non-browning apples; that’s not how it works [eg. If a Gala tree is cross-pollinated by a Fuji tree, the Gala tree doesn’t produce Fuji apples].”
We’re not trying to hide the fact that we’re using genetic engineering
But what about the biggest concern raised by pretty much all of his critics, that this is about transparency, and that labeling the apples as ‘Arctic apples’ but not spelling out that they have been genetically engineered, is deceptive, and even suspicious, if there is nothing to hide?
Said Carter: “We’re not trying to hide the fact that we’re using genetic engineering, for a start it’s been all over the news and we are doing interviews and being very transparent and there is a huge amount of information on our website for anyone that has questions or concerns.
“But there is only so much room on apple stickers. People can add more information in bags or at point of sale if they wish. But having a sticker that just says GMO and nothing else just demonizes products and looks scary, and would just belittle the years of work we’ve put in.”
When it comes to GMOs, everybody has their own agenda
So how has the industry reacted to date? And what about claims that the apple growing industry is not exactly behind Arctic apples?
Said Carter: “We've had really positive feedback, especially from the foodservice industry. Initially the US Apple Association had concerns but today if you go to their website they are quite positive. The Northwest Horticultural Council is a different story, but we can live with that.”
It is incredible the bullshit that you hear about this technology
When it comes to the wider debate about GMOs, he said, the important thing is to recognize there is a conversation going on and to join it, rather than equivocating or burying your head in the sand.
“It is incredible the bullshit that you hear about this technology, but for the people that are against it, it’s a business for them, that’s how they make their living; everybody has their own agenda.
“But I also think the food industry has been very poor at educating people about genetic engineering and some of the big food companies have painted themselves into a corner on this issue. They reformulate one product [to go non-GMO] but don’t change the others, so they don’t please anyone, it costs a lot of money, there’s no benefit to the consumer, and they don’t gain any market share. You wonder did they do their homework.”
FoE: Farmers don’t want to grow it, food companies don’t want to sell it, and consumers don’t want to eat it
So how has the news of the deregulation been received?
Non-GMO activists at Just Label It, the Environmental Working Group, the Consumers Union, the Center for Food Safety, and Friends of the Earth and immediately issued press releases outlining their concerns (which we put to Carter, above), with FoE Food and Technology program director Lisa Archer noting: “Farmers don’t want to grow it, food companies don’t want to sell it and consumers don’t want to eat it.”
(Click HERE to read FoE's comments in full.)
This product is completely unnecessary
Meanwhile, Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety, said the pros simply outweighed the cons: “This product is completely unnecessary and poses numerous risks to apple growers, the food industry and consumers.”
Click HERE to read the CFS's full comments to USDA about Arctic apples.
However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued a more positive statement, noting that, “Unlike most of the commercially approved genetically engineered crops, which provide benefits primarily to farmers, this product provides a modest benefit to consumers. It might make sense to use such a product for pre-sliced apple slices or in fruit salad or salad bars."
It added: “The developer still will complete its safety review at the FDA - a voluntary process that should be mandatory. But there’s no indication that this new apple presents an environmental concern, and it might demonstrate to consumers how, in time, other new products could provide even more impressive benefits, including to improve health.”