GMO "non-browning" apple in for a long fight

Arctic® Golden slices (bottom) compared to conventional Golden slices. Photo: Okanagan Specialty Fruits

Arctic® Golden slices (bottom) compared to conventional Golden slices. Photo: Okanagan Specialty Fruits

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture closed the comment period on whether it should approve commercial sale of Arctic Apples – genetically modified apples that "turn off" a gene in the fruit that causes browning. I wrote about the apples last month here. The Seattle News has a good profile of the Canadian apple grower and genetic engineering businessman who wants to bring the Arctic Apple to market.

An agency within the USDA, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), has already recommended the GMO apples be granted non-regulated status, saying they "have the potential to improve fruit processing capabilities for maintain the quality and shelf life of apples.”

So now the first GMO apple to hit the produce aisle is in the hands of the USDA as it weighs hundreds of public comments.

The Center for Food Safety's 76 pages of deep-science comments include the intimation that it will challenge APHIS's determination in favor of the apple under federal environmental law, arguing its assessment was "substantively, procedurally, scientifically, and legally inadequate."

An interesting wrinkle in this story is the greater apple-growing industry has largely opposed approval. According to Capital Press, their concern is public perception affecting sales:

The big unknown, industry leaders say, is how many people would quit buying apples because they’re concerned about genetic engineering. Though no health risks have been associated with it, genetic engineering has become a hot button issue among some consumers who fear there may be undiscovered risks.
This debate is a pretty big moment for genetically modified foods. The apple-a-day is the icon of healthy eating. If people are ok with eating a GMO apple, what's next?
The USDA may issue a ruling in the spring, but legal challenges could delay the Arctic Apple for a lot longer.

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  1. Comment

  2. What they have done is use the anti-viral machinery in the plant to knock down the anti-insect anti bacterial system. I would think the worst thing that could happen is that these apple trees are more susceptible to various pests. I did read the Center for Food Safety's 76 page document that was linked above. Its kind of grasping at straws.

  3. David – Many years ago when I was an undergraduate taking a genetics course we were told of a peace corp volunteer in a Central American village who, for his project, mutagenized watermelon seeds with X-rays. I don't remember what he was trying to get but he ended up with the first seedless watermelons. His little village made a fortune shipping the seedless watermelons to the US.
    Now it seems that all watermelons are seedless and probably derived from the ones developed in that village. In what way is that different from what these apples? Not that I think there is a big market for pre-sliced apples.

    • I think the market is pretty huge actually. McDonald's alone is a huge market for them.

  4. Peter, I think there is actually a market for pre-sliced apples. One of the hurdles to getting people to eat unprocessed foods is that you have to process them yourself. You can buy cubed potatoes, peeled squash, tossed salads in the produce section – why not sliced apples?

    It's a shame that this debate is framed as 'GMOs, good or bad?' I don't imagine that most people know enough about the science to evaluate GMOs as a class of plants, much less the pros and cons of any particular modification I would love to hear what a plant geneticist thinks o' them apples.

  5. The big question would be how do those apples taste? I did look to try to find out exactly what the RNAi construct was that they introduced. It may have been a Chinese group that made these or at least got them from tissue culture into full grown apple trees.

    • I think these were developed in Canada.