Apple lovers know that a sliced piece left out too long will start to turn brown. But, that experience may go the way of seeds in watermelon – something that still exists but is no longer the norm. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved sale of genetically engineered nonbrowning apples today, but it will take a while for them to become a public standard. The approval also raises the question of adding more genetically modified produce to American diets.
The U.S. federal government approved two types of genetically engineered apples that do not turn brown when they are bruised or sliced for sale in the country. Made by British Columbia-based Canadian firm Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the produce will be branded in stores as Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden. (The Arctic versions are essentially Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples that were modified to avoid browning.)
The USDA approved commercial planting of the genetically engineered crop today. The Animal Plant Health Inspection Service part of the agency based its approval on a determination that the apples will not pose a likely risk to other plants from bacteria, fungi or other threats.
The nonbrowning effect in the apples is created by genetically reducing production of one enzyme in the fruit. The developer insists that otherwise the apples are similar to conventional fruit, particularly with regard to nutrition. The produce will brown and rot eventually, according to USDA documents, but far slower than regular apples.
Neal Carter, Okanagan’s president and founder, noted that it took his firm “57 months and counting for us to get this approval.” It will also take years before the Arctic apples are available in stores. Carter said that the public will probably see the fruit begin to appear in grocery outlets in 2017.
Okanahan has worked with four growers to plant approximately 20,000 trees this spring. They should reap anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of fruit in the fall of 2016, which are expected to provide samples for product development trials as well as to entice food service companies and potential buyers.
Many may question the need for a nonbrowning Granny Smith. The company emphasizes that they will appeal to consumers for carting to school or work, not show bruises in packaging or in stores reducing shrinkage for retailers and packers, and they hope will allow for line extensions.
While the company is optimistic, it is questionable whether the public will want biotech-engineered apples, particularly if there is a cost difference (which has not been discussed in any of the announcement materials). Industry executives hope that the introduction of genetically modified versions does not negatively impact the image of the apple as a healthy food.
The public and consumer groups have objected to other genetically modified crops. The USDA has indicated that they received more than 175,000 public statements during the two comment periods. Many environmental and consumer groups have long maintained that genetically modified crops are not thoroughly safety tested for any long-term effects. In spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the comments were against endorsing the product, the agency went ahead and approved the nonbrowning apples for U.S. sale.
By Dyanne Weiss