A Tale Of Two Apples: How 'GMO' Shapes The Fate Of Your Fruit
The following is an excerpt of an article on Forbes about the regulatory approval process non-browning GMO apples go through.
New apple varieties seem to hit the produce aisle constantly these days, but it wasn’t always that way. For years, the U.S. apple industry was primarily dominated by two varieties: the Red and the Golden Delicious. But that all changed in the late 1990s, explains Chuck Zeutenhorst, General Manager of FirstFruits, the company that grows and sells the Opal and several other apple varieties. “There began this very slow proliferation of new apple varieties,” he recounts, “which today is on a trajectory that’s just incredible.”
Only that incredible trajectory never really translated to a booming apple industry, says Zeutenhorst. “The big kicker in what we’re seeing...is that people aren’t eating more apples.” Despite all those new varieties introduced over the years, per capita apple consumption has stayed fairly constant. It’s a real source of frustration for apple growers, he laments. “I love the Opal but...I can tell you right now it’s affecting our Golden situation.”
The promise of busting through that apple-eating stagnation was precisely what motivated Neal Carter. Carter is President of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the company that developed the non-browning genetically modified Arctic. But before the company’s founding in 1996, he was working as a bioresource engineer, consulting for a number of food companies, when he crossed paths with an Australian government research agency working on genetically engineering potatoes to be non-browning.
Carter and his wife Louisa owned apple orchards in the Okanagan valley in British Columbia, and he thought the technology could be a game-changer for the apple industry. In the same way that cutting up ugly carrots and marketing them as “baby carrots” rescued food waste and boosted carrot sales, a non-browning apple could mean less apples wasted and better apple sales.
The Carters founded Okanagan in 1996, licensing the technology from the Australian research agency so they could begin work on what would eventually become the Arctic. But the process wasn’t easy. It turned out the licensed technology didn’t work so well with apples. Okanagan scientists then experimented with a number of different techniques before finding success with a gene silencing method called RNAi or RNA interference and the right genetic additions: four DNA segments from the apple itself that, when inserted, were successful in shutting down the genes responsible for making polyphenol oxidase, the chemical that causes the apple insides to brown when exposed to air.
Carter is careful to point out that the Arctic is non-browning but it’s not non-rotting, as there’s “a difference between enzymatic browning and the discoloration that occurs when an apple turns rotten.” Despite apple processor Ken Guise’s concern, “non-browning Arctic apples do not mask or hide rot, and actually make it easier to tell when an apple is still good to eat.”
The traditionally bred Opal apple also took years to create. “It takes a long, long time to do it naturally,” says Zeutenhorst, explaining that it took the Czech scientist who created the Opal “most of his adult life” to get it right. The breeding process can be painstakingly slow. “What you’re doing is you’re taking an apple that’s bloomed...and you’re pollinating that golden apple with Topaz pollen to create [a new seedling].” Once those new seedlings have sprouted, apple breeders have to check the different new crops to find the fruit with the combination of traits they like best. Zeutenhorst describes it as “genetic modification,” but the kind of modification that’s “all done very naturally.”
Both the Arctic and Opal were created by scientists and both are protected by patent. Once apple breeders create a new seedling, whether with traditional breeding methods or genetic engineering, the next step is the same: grafting that seedling onto crabapple rootstock in fields to grow the apples.
It’s at this point where the two stories really diverge.