In mid-February, the USDA approved the first genetically engineered (GE) apples. These apples will be marketed as Arctic® apples, and have been modified to stall browning after cutting or bruising. In an interesting Q&A sheet, the USDA explained its approval process. It is required to approve (technically, to “deregulate”) a crop once sufficient evidence shows that the crop meets pest safety standards set by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)—the crop must be unlikely to be a pest to other agricultural crops or plants. The Arctic® Apple passed these pest tests conducted in both Washington and New York states, which combine produce almost 70% of all apples grown in the United States.
The FDA is also involved. Although it considers deregulated biotech crops similar to their conventional counterparts, it provides a voluntary consultation process to help ensure food safety. The biotech company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, is apparently still waiting for the FDA’s approval through this voluntary review process.
There has been, and will continue to be, controversy surrounding these apples. Characteristic of the larger food genetic engineering debate, the USDA stated that the majority of public comments received, “did not raise any specific disagreement with APHIS’ analysis of the pest risk of this GE apple. Rather, they expressed general opposition to GE organisms or GE apples.” The company has conceded that many stores might be hesitant to stock GE apples for fear of customer backlash. And other apple growers oppose the new technology, citing concerns that customers will associate all apples as GE apples (although in the age of organic, I’m skeptical about this complaint).
Despite these fears, concerns, and doubts, I’m optimistic that GE apples could be good for both consumers and for reframing the GE debate.
(1) The Technology
When a normal apple is cut or sliced, the enzyme polyphenol oxidase (PPO) is produced and is responsible for the immediate apple-enzymatic browning. But this pathway can be silenced when copies of low-PPO genes from other apples are inserted. This modification silences the normal PPO gene. The modified Arctic® Apples end up producing only 10% of PPO amounts compared to traditional apples, which is not enough to cause browning. PPO does not affect other apple pathways and Arctic® Apples will still undergo normal rotting.
For some opponents to GE technology, could this type of engineering be an acceptable form of GE? There might be less fear about crossbreeding or “Frankenfruits” or fear that these apples are “unnatural,” since they still only contain apple genes. There could be less confusion about what is being added to the fruits since it is a relatively easy process, and gene, to explain. Even without genetic modification, consumers could imagine a similar mutation happening naturally after years of DNA replication, and then continued through selective breeding.
(2) The Public Health
Apples are healthy. Kids (generally) like apples. Kids (generally) like apple slices even more. Cheaper, more appetizing, and easier to package fruit could help transform cafeteria lunches and reduce cafeteria waste. And apples that don’t turn brown as quickly or as often meet all those criteria.
Additionally, as with Golden Rice, the public understands that we need nutritional solutions both in developing and developed settings. These apples provide another example of biotechnology that could help with obesity and poverty. It is inherently easier to support something that is healthy, compared to something like corn that is used in high fructose corn syrup or even the GE potato (which might be the next approved new GE crop).
(3) The Small Company
Monsanto didn’t create this! Okanagan Specialty Fruits is just a small company, without a reputation for profit seeking or pesticide advocating products. As cynical as this sounds, it is great that a smaller biotechnology company created this apple—not just for public perception, but also for opening the field of genetic possibilities to smaller companies. Biotechnology doesn’t always have to be associated with Big Agriculture!
There are still many challenges regarding public acceptance of GE fruits before Arctic® Apples go mainstream. McDonalds and Gerber both announced that they had no plans to sell or use Arctic® Apples. But I do hope that products like these will help further meaningful and informed conversations about what types of technology we are willing to accept in our foods.
For more information about the company, the products, and what these apples are all about, visit Okanagan Specialty Fruits.
Malia McPherson is a 2L at Stanford Law School