Big news in the apple world: The federal government has approved the planting of genetically modified apples that won't turn brown when sliced. These apples, branded the "Arctic Apple," could appear on store shelves in just a few years.
But why does the world needs a browning-resistant apple? Sliced, it appears, is better than whole.
Critics will always point to the holes in the research, but those holes aren't easily filled.
"A whole apple is too big of a commitment," says Neal Carter, the president of Okanagan, the small Canadian company behind the GMO apple. "We watched explosive growth in the fresh-cut business. Ready-to-eat salads and sliced-and-diced fruits and vegetable have become a significant part of the produce business. And apples don't participate that much." He'd like to change that.
Carter says he has spoken to around 40 or 50 reporters since the USDA announcement. Clearly this story isn't a scoop. It's a sensation. But it remains to be seen if the media interest in Arctic Apples is due to its gee-whiz appeal or if there is genuine appetite for these fruits. It will take at least until 2016 for the first batch of Arctic Apples to be ready for sale. (It takes a few seasons for a tree to produce high-quality fruit.) And Carter is not ready to announce distribution plans.
When apple flesh is exposed to air, it releases an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase (PPO). Just as iron oxidizes into rust when it comes in contact with water, white apple flesh turns brown when in contact with PPO. Okanagan suppresses the apple gene that codes for PPO. The process was discovered in 1995, derived from the genetics of a special grape that doesn't go brown. The result: an apple that has 90 percent less PPO activity when sliced compared with non-GMO varieties. Carter secured the worldwide licensing rights for the technology in 1997. Since then, the company has been working on perfecting the process and clearing the federal regulatory hurdles.
Meeting regulations, however, is not so simple.
Three agencies share the responsibility of regulating genetically modified foods and products—the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the USDA. Because the Arctic Apple is technically a plant, and more specifically, the technology it uses is derived from methods to make pesticide-resistant crops, it falls under the purview of the USDA.
The USDA is primarily concerned about the impact a GMO plant has on the ecosystem—whether the GMO plant will become a pest, affect insects, or disrupt ecosystems if taken across state lines. In its determination, the USDA found that the Arctic Apple is "unlikely to pose a plant pest risk and therefore are no longer subject to our regulations governing the introduction of certain [genetically engineered] organisms." The USDA verified Okanagan's claim of reduced browning, determined that the Arctic Apples were the nutritional equivalent of a similar non-GMO variety, and found that the apples "pose no more of a plant pest risk ... than conventional apple fruit." What the USDA is saying, essentially, is this: The Arctic Apple is no more dangerous to the environment than any other apple. It can be grown and sold.
But groups that oppose the introduction of more genetically modified fruit into the U.S. market aren't confident in the level of oversight. "The USDA glossed over the possibility of unintentional effects associated with the technology used to engineer these apples," Wenonah Hauter, the director of the Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group, wrote in a press release immediately after the USDA made its decision.
Jennifer Kuzma, the co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Program at North Carolina State University, explains that the current regulatory framework invites such criticism. "USDA's whole assessment process is really centered around whether it is a plant pest or not, and that's where the critics have problems," she says. "The USDA doesn't necessarily look for the indirect ecological effects or the human health effects, because their law is to look at the plant pest properties."
But the ecological assessments can only go so far: Should the USDA test every bird who might come to eat a piece of this apple? Critics will always point to the holes in the research, but those holes aren't easily filled. "It's impossible to test for every single indirect ecological effect," she says. "It's really complicated."
And critics can find more fuel in the fact that the FDA's process for regulating GMO foods is completely voluntary (as is a producer's decision to label a food a GMO). Okanagan says the company started the voluntary consultation process with the FDA in 2011, and they expect the review to finish this year.
GMO foods can carry negative connotations. In a recent Pew survey comparing the views of the general public with those of scientists, 57 percent of the general public say genetically modified foods are "generally unsafe to eat." Eighty-eight percent of scientists, however, said they were safe. "This is the largest opinion difference between the public and scientists," Pew noted in the survey.
Companies are aware that GMO makes for bad marketing. In November, McDonald's passed on the opportunity to use similar browning-resistant potatoes. "McDonald's USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practice," a McDonald's representative told Capital Press, an agriculture-industry publication. When Hershey's expanded into Europe in 2010, the candy manufacturer omitted GMO ingredients from products on the continent (where GMO labels are required). Whole Foods takes pains to label products as GMO-free.
Though both proponents and opponents of GMO foods tend to be vocal about food safety, a large part of the population has not made up their minds, Kuzma says. In a 2014 study on consumers' thoughts on genetically modified rice, Kuzma and colleagues found that about 40 percent of people "do not care about what technology is adopted during production as long as certain benefits can be brought by the technology." But another 25 percent of the participants, dubbed "New Technology Rejecters," won't budge in their thoughts to avoid GMO food. (Kuzma says she can't say for sure if the rice findings would generalize to GMO apples). A similar study on apples in 2009 found that consumers would be more likely to eat them if their production was advertised as having a lower environmental impact.
Arctic Apples are one of the the first GMO foods to be marketed directly toward consumers' tastes. Most of the time, plants are engineered to resist pesticides or to reduce waste. The most commonly engineered foods—corn and soybeans—are usually processed into oils or before they make it to the table. With the Arctic Apple, consumers will be eating a whole GMO product. Aside for a failed GMO tomato introduced in the 1990s, there have been few tests of such a product in the marketplace.
"There's going to be significant backlash, but whether it is going to be more or less than these previous GMO foods," Kuzma says. "I'm not sure."