When An Apple A Day Makes Things Worse: GMO Apples

By Red58bill (CC-BY-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

By Red58bill (CC-BY-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

A Canadian specialty biotechnology company has asked USDA to approve a genetically modified apple variety that keeps from oxidizing and going brown when cut or damaged.

Unlike the typical commercial GMOs that focus on pesticide or insecticide resistance, the company’s gamble is that tree fruits that do not deteriorate as quickly when cut will help boost sales of freshly sliced apples.  The fresh-cut sliced apple market segment has been booming, but this bet is bound to face enormous challenges with consumer, farmer, and industry acceptance.

The company behind the GM apple is Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF) based in British Columbia that was founded in 1996.  OSF exclusively licensed its gene control technology from Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, and it is looking to alter genes of apples, as well as pears, peaches and cherries.  The company expects that genetic modification will be the right cosmetic touch to benefit apple processors and the food service industry, however it is bound for a failure.

While the USDA and FDA approval process has barely started, the biggest challenge for OSF may be winning over consumer approval.   Beyond public concerns over genetic modified foods, there are also worries that this technology may help hide any damage that apples had incurred during harvest and transportation, as well as the real age of produce on the store shelf.  And the company’s actual stated goal is to genetically alter the symbol of nutrition and health and to put this novelty in children’s lunch boxes — that’s hardly a way to win over worried parents.

Already some apple industry leaders have expressed skepticism about the potential of this product.  Why tinker with DNA when we already have a number of existing readily-available approved and safe alternatives that keep packaged apple slices fresh.

Similarly, OSF will face an uphill battle in convincing farmers to grow GM apples. “Genetically modified — that’s a bad word in our industry,” said Todd Fryhover, president of Washington Apple Commission, to the Associated Press.  Fryhover also put the price of replanting for apple farmers as possibly too high to make economic sense. Fryhover’s Washington state produces more than half of U.S. apple crop.

The company doesn’t specify which apple variety was the basis for its proprietary variety named “Arctic” apple which critics dubbed as the “botox apple.”

Whichever way you slice it, the regulatory approval process for non-browning GM apples is expected to take years.  This may be one cosmetic surgery on produce that nobody wants.