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Meet The Company That Wants To Make Your Fruit Perfect, And Genetically Engineered

Imagine an apple that never goes brown. A company has found a way to turn off the gene that makes apples go bad, so that they can be shipped, stored, and used more easily in the food service industry. But what’s the cost?

The kind of fruit you might see in a television ad, glistening and unblemished, is a rarity. A large percentage of all produce (40%) never even makes it to the grocery store or farmer’s market because of damage. This problem, compounded by the fact that apple consumption has been on the decline for decades, led Neal Carter, the founder and president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, to search for solutions. He came up with the Arctic Apple, a genetically engineered apple that doesn’t turn brown, even when bruised or cut open. It’s the closest science has come to creating the perfect apple specimen. But not everyone is happy about it.

Carter, a bioresource engineer by training, has 30 years of experience in the agriculture sector. "[My wife and I] always were looking for ways to control harvest and post-harvest losses in fruits and vegetables," he says. In the mid-1990s, he came across technology developed in Australia’s CSIRO (the country’s national science agency) that uses the polyphenol oxidase (PPO) gene to inhibit enzymatic browning. Translation: The gene can stop the browning process from beginning, at least temporarily. "We thought 'Wow, that’s the solution,'" he says.

In 1996, Carter founded Okanagan Specialty Fruits, an agriculture biotechnology company in British Columbia, Canada. He quickly licensed the enzymatic browning technology from the Australian government (Okanagan has the exclusive worldwide license to use the technology in tree fruits) and got to work. Eventually, Carter’s seven-person team produced the Arctic Apple, which can last several days without browning—up to 17 days sliced open and placed in Ziploc bags in the fridge. Now the Arctic Apple is in the midst of the USDA’s 60-day public comment period. If all goes well, non-browning Granny Smith and Golden Delicious Arctic Apple varieties will be available in your local grocery store.

Neal Carter, founder and president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits

According to Carter, there’s a big opportunity for the Arctic Apple to transform the apple’s role in the food service industry. "Other than McDonald’s buying apples to make their dippers, apples are hardly at all going to food service. We want to increase that," he says. Okanagan likens the Arctic Apple to baby carrots on its website: "Having watched how 'baby carrots’ have provided a consumption trigger for the carrot category, OSF’s Carter feels that a similar opportunity exists for apples and other tree fruits."

The supply chain may agree, but not everyone else does. Glen Lucas, general manager of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association (Okanagan is a member) tells us: "Our biggest concern is the market risk that consumers will adversely react. This is one of the first [GM] fresh fruits and vegetables that’s being considered." Much of the processed food on the market today contains GM ingredients. The same isn’t yet true of fruits and vegetables (Monsanto’s sweet corn will be released this fall).

According to Lucas, consumers just don’t want GM apples. The BC Fruit Growers’ Association recently did a 1,500-person web-based survey to gain insight into the issue, and found that 49% of respondents were against genetic engineering of food in food. An overwhelming 69% were not in favor of the Arctic Apple.

The BC Fruit Growers’ Association is also concerned that the Canadian government (which isn’t much different from the U.S. government in this respect) has failed to provide consumers adequate information on GM foods. In fact, 76% of survey respondents believed that they don’t know enough about GM foods to make an informed decision. "As producers we don’t want to get caught in the middle of that. That’s why we’re opposed. We need better information so that there won’t be a backlash with what’s going on," says Lucas. "I think that failure [in transparency] extends into its regulatory review process. It’s obscure, it’s not open, and it’s arbitrarily limited in what it considers."

Browning apples on the top; non-browning Arctic apples on the bottom.

Carter believes that the Arctic Apple is completely safe for human consumption, and that it doesn’t pose a threat to other growers. There are two types of browning: enzymatic browning (when you bite your apple, leave for a little bit, and return to see the white flesh turning brown) and bacterial and fungal-driven browning, also known as rot. The Arctic Apple still browns if it’s rotting, says Carter, so consumers are in no danger of eating a bad apple.

Any concerns about the anti-enzymatic browning gene spreading to other apple growers’ orchards are unfounded, says Carter. "Apple pollen doesn’t travel far. It doesn’t blow in the wind, it’s sticky, it stays in the flower, and it doesn’t move," he says. "Even if that worst case scenario happened [of pollen spreading], all that happens is that you get a little bit of the paternal DNA being expressed in the seed. We don’t eat seeds. They won’t land on the ground and grow an apple tree. Really, it’s inconsequential."

Actually, says Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, that’s not true. "The on-the-ground experience of apple growers is that risk of contamination is quite high," she says. "Some people do actually eat the seed, and apple trees do grow from random seeds scattered on compost heaps on the side of the road. This is the problem with complex organisms and complex ecosystems. There’s always going to be some level of contamination and risk."

The juice of non-browning Arctic apples is on the left; the juice of conventional apples is on the right.

It’s a key point: Apple pollen doesn’t travel far, but there’s always a risk. Apple trees usually reproduce via grafting, but sometimes random seeds do generate trees. The question is whether "usually" is worth the risk—and how big a risk there is.

Okanagan Fruits won’t end its quest to produce better, more attractive fruit with the Arctic Apple. Next up are cherries, which can suffer from pitting—a manifestation of a bruise that can happen when people squeeze the stem while picking. The same PPO gene inhibited in the non-browning apple could be inhibited in cherries, creating an "Arctic Cherry" with reduced pitting and stem browning.

Carter and his team have already tested their methods on other fruits as well. "We have transformed peaches and apricots, but the problem is it’s a numbers game. There’s a huge amount of work, and it’s still at the basic research level," he says.

In the meantime, there are those cherries to think about. And Okanagan isn’t done with apples, either. The company is already working on Gala and Fuji apple varieties. It’s also using genetic engineering to fix other apple imperfections, including scabbing, fire blight, and storage scald.

Regardless of protestations, Carter might be on to something. Who doesn’t want their food to look Photoshop-perfect?