A Biotech Company Has Developed a GMO Apple That Doesn't Brown

The first non-oxidizing apple, named "Arctic Apple," whose flesh doesn't brown when exposed to air, is stirring up international controversy because the GMO fruit is spliced with an antibiotic gene.

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Mar 3 2014, 6:07pm

Photo via Flickr user Flinqr

I don’t think that most people are all that concerned about an apple that’s a little bit brown. After you cut up some apple slices and leave them out for a few minutes in the open air, the fruit begins to oxidize—it’s part of nature, and we understand that it tastes just as good. If that's how you feel, then Okanagan Specialty Fruits isn’t interested in you as a customer. The British Columbia–based fruit grower has developed the so-called Arctic Apple, the first non-oxidizing apple. And the genetically modified fruit—spliced with an antibiotic gene called Kanamycin—is stirring up nearly as much controversy as Eve’s apple.

“We’re all on the same page. We are not in support of this apple,” said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, of growers’ sentiment. “As an industry, we have been able to say forever that apples are not GM [genetically modified]. We have never crossed that line, and we don’t want to do so now.”

Allen said he worried that genetically modified apples might topple the already struggling North American apple-export market. That’s because Europe has much stricter food-safety regulations than the US; as a result, the EU has already slashed its import of US grown apples, objecting to American growers’ use of waxes (to make the apples shiny) and certain chemicals that prevent “scald,” a variety of conditions that blemish the apples but don’t affect their taste. US apple exports to Europe dropped by 73 percent between 2006 and 2012, causing New York senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to call upon the EU to reconsider its import barriers. 

Adding a genetically modified apple to the mix could be the final bullet to the already floundering apple-export industry. The EU has strict regulations on which GM crops it will import; crops containing “antibiotic marker genes,” like the one used by Arctic Apples, are a strict no-go as of 2004. If they’re approved by the FDA, the USDA, and their Canadian counterparts—as seems likely by later this year—Arctic Apples would be the only GM apple on the market. But traditional apple growers fear that their fruit trees could become cross-pollinated with Arctic Apples, a phenomenon that has plagued farmers—and produced many lawsuits—since the mid 90s, when genetically modified crops began to be widely planted. And if traditional apples do get cross-pollinated—or if the EU even fears that they might—exports could drop even lower. 

“We do depend on exports tremendously, and the EU is deaf on GMOs,” Allen said.  

The makers of Arctic Apples insist that cross-pollination is not an issue. “Growing an Arctic orchard next to a conventional orchard is akin to growing Galas next to Granny Smiths—they don’t become each other,” said Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits. “Similarly, Arctic apples will not make neighboring orchards ‘GMO.’”

Because apple blossoms are pollinated by bees and not by wind, Carter said, the risk of bee visits between orchards is minimal. “Bees typically stay close to the hive when ample food is present, such as in an orchard in bloom, and their movement is further restricted among dense plantings common in apple orchards,” he said. 

Allen doesn’t buy that argument. “There would be cross-pollination,” he said. 

The issue won’t be settled for a few more years. Although Arctic Apples will likely soon receive commercial approval, it will take time to convince apple growers to take a risk on producing them, given general consumer distrust of GM foods. And such a gamble would be a pricey one, with orchard land going for about $15,000–$20,000 per acre, according to Allen. Once the Arctic orchards do get planted, it will take years for the trees to reach maturity and produce fruit.

Until then, we’ll just have to dream about all the possibilities of an apple that doesn’t brown. Or just eat an oxidized regular apple and go about our daily lives.

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