In mid-February, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) approved the first genetically modified (GMO) apples for sale to orchards and eventually to consumers. The approval covers two GMO apples available at the moment: the Arctic Golden apple (an offshoot of the Golden Delicious) and Arctic Granny, which is a new iteration of the Granny Smith.

This USDA approval follows quickly on the heels of USDA granting approval for a GMO potato. USDA gave J.R. Simplot’s Innate potato the nod in November 2014. The Boise, Idaho, firm said their potatoes pose no environmental risk, pose no harm to other species, and grow just like conventional potatoes in extensive field tests.

The approval of Arctic GMO apples promises to send the apple industry down the same path that dairy producers, grain producers and others have gone with GMO products. It again will open similar discussions over the efficacy of the product and the healthiness of farm commodities.

Why a GMO apple?

The bottom line is visual aesthetics. According to the developer of the two Arctic varieties, Okanagan Specialty Fruits of Summerland, B.C. Canada, the varieties, when sliced, are slow to brown. Arctic apples eventually will turn brown and rot just like any other fruit. But they are modified to produce less of the substance that causes browning. This will be most popular with large-scale buyers: restaurants where sliced fresh apples often appear on salad bars; grocery stores, where sliced apples are sold; and other food-service operations like school cafeterias.

Neil and Louisa Carter, apple and cherry growers, run Okanagan. “We expect to partner with a number of growers throughout the U.S. and Canada over the coming years to get as many Arctic apple trees in the ground as possible,” Neil Carter said.

“We also expect to have additional nonbrowning varieties, such as Arctic Gala and Arctic Fuji, available in addition to the recently approved Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden cultivars,” he added.

Field trials on the two approved apples, conducted in New York State and Washington, were overseen and inspected by APHIS. In its petition for approval, Okanagan made a specific point that the apple is not engineered for pest resistance. APHIS says it took the action based on a final plant pest risk assessment and its finding that GMO apples are unlikely to pose a plant pest risk.

Under terms of the Plant Protection Act, APHIS is required to evaluate if the GMOs are a plant pest risk to agricultural crops, other plants or plant products. During the hearings, APHIS received many public complaints. APHIS says the majority of the comments did not raise specific disagreement with the APHIS findings on the Arctic lines. Instead, people voiced opposition to GMO in general and the apples in particular. Many commenters raised concerns about the safety of these particular apples for human consumption, as well as concern about the impact on exports of U.S. apples.

Nevertheless, there may be a market opportunity in GMO fruits for producers. “Growers who are interested in planting Arctic apple trees can contact us directly,” Carter explained. With the help of their nursery partner, Okanagan expects to have around 25,000 trees available for planting in 2015.

“We have already had numerous requests from growers looking to place orders for 2015, 2016 and beyond,” Carter said.

Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden trees on a wide range of root stock options are available. Okanagan is currently prioritizing growers who are interested in partnering long-term to plant sustainable commercial acreage of all Arctic varieties.

Okanagan expects to have around 25,000 trees available for planting in 2015.PHOTO BY SHAWN_HEMPEL/ISTOCKPHOTO.COM.

Other viewpoints surface

The USApple Association (USApple), in Vienna, Virginia, has adopted a balanced position concerning GMO apples.

The association said its members support advancements from technology, including genetics and genomics research. Benefits include attributes such as quality, new varieties and aromatic flavor profiles, improved pest resistance and enhanced nutrition.

“We strongly support consumer choice and are encouraged that the producers of Arctic apples have committed to clearly identifying their apples in all marketing and packaging,” said Jim Bair, President and CEO of USApple in a statement.

“It will likely be two to three years minimum before these apples are available. In that time, shoppers will be able to get informed and make their own choices as to whether they want to purchase Arctic apples when they ultimately become available,” he continued.

As a non-GMO low-browning alternative, many varieties of apples are available in stores that are very low browning, according to USApple. There are also simple methods to slow the browning process, such as lightly coating sliced or cut apples with vitamin C-fortified apple juice (most apple juice is vitamin C-fortified).

APHIS, in approving a variety, does not deal with marketing or social issues – simply the risk that a GMO plant might pose as a pest risk to orchards or other plants. Since apples are an out-crossing species, Okanagan acknowledged that there is a possibility for Arctic to “naturally hybridize with other cultivated apple varieties or crabapples” when they have overlapping flowering times.

As of early March, Okanagan was working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on a voluntary food safety assessment.

The FDA says that the odds of transferring genes from plant genomes to microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract of animals or humans is “remote” and that horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is “unlikely to occur” and thus no significant plant pest risk is expected from HGT.

On the other side of the coin, organic certification prohibits the use of GMO of any sort for any reason.

This is one possible tag for the Arctic apple. Note that it does not mention genetic modification.

In the case of other GMO crops – soybeans or corn, for example – modification has been primarily to make the crop pest resistant or compatible with a chemical that offers improved pest control. For instance, there are several Roundup-compatible crops…crop hybrids that are Roundup-resistant, allowing the broad-spectrum material to be applied to the corn – killing the weeds but not the corn. Glyphosate-resistant wheat falls into the same category.

Potato comparison

GMO potatoes like Innate are not really new. Antibiotechnology activists shut down the market for GMO potatoes in the 1990s. Monsanto, the main GMO potato player, abandoned the product, but researchers continued to use GMO technology to develop new potato varieties, according to USDA information from the University of Idaho.

Innate’s claim to fame is reduced black spot bruising. It took Simplot about 14 years to bring the potato to market. It promises less waste in the packing process.

The developer says Innate shows approximately 40 percent less bruising caused by impact and pressure during harvest and storage than conventional potatoes. Innate also has lower levels of asparagine.

It was potatoes, not apples, that got a big boost on the international scene when Czech Minister of Agriculture Ivan Fuksa said publicly, “Genetically modified crops have future.” The reference was made several years ago in conjunction with the Amflora potato.

However, it should be noted that the operation Fuksa was visiting and referring to is a farmer-owned potato starch operation in Hodiskov, Czech Republic, and Amflora had a captive market since the farmers owned the starch mill. Since the potato starch produced at Hodiskov is used for industrial purposes, not human food, there was little controversy.

Fuksa called for more research and a speeding up of the approval process for GMO products. He called for pragmatism over irrationality in the European Union’s approach to GMO crops.

Whether U.S. consumers and activists will see GMO the same way the Czech Republic does remains to be seen.

Apple appearance plays role in marketing

Will GMO apples appeal to consumers? Most consumers have, for a long time, preferred worm-free apples to apples with worms or worm holes. Outside of the organic market, worm holes are treated as obvious blemishes while use of an insecticide to rid the apples of worms is invisible to the naked eye and results in a nice, blemish-free fruit.

The argument for the Arctic lines is that they will not brown as fast and thus will have strong visual appeal to the consumer…or, at least, will take longer to become repulsive to the consumer.

Congress will weigh in on the GMO issue, or, at least, more than three dozen Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress support a measure that would require specific labeling of GMO foods, apples included.

Carter disagrees. “We don’t believe that imposing mandatory labeling is a good idea, because a generic GMO label provides little-to-no meaningful information and may be misconstrued as a warning label,” Carter said. “Every biotech crop is unique, and we feel it is more helpful to instead draw attention to the specific product and manner in which it was enhanced.

As a result, all of their fruit will be clearly branded with an “Arctic” sticker. The Arctic sticker says nothing about GMO.

“We have a great deal of information on our website (http://www.okspecialtyfruits.com) and elsewhere that explains exactly what we did to enhance our apples with their nonbrowning trait,” Carter said.

Look for market introduction of Arctic apples to consumers to start with small, test market quantities in late 2016, with increasing amounts of fruit being introduced into the market slowly but surely going forward, Carter said.

What Congress says

Democrats in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives are proposing mandatory labels for GMO food.

Senate Bill 511 is for an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requiring genetically engineered food and foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients be labeled accordingly. The measure has moved through two committee readings and was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

The House’s, “Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act (H.R. 913)” was introduced in mid-February and referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Legislators aim to raise consumers awareness about GMO products. That leaves plenty of room to market Arctic apples.

“Our vision is to develop new commercial tree fruit varieties that offer exciting benefits to the entire supply chain, from growers to consumers,” Okanagan’s website proclaims.

That said, it will be a while before Arctic GMO apples are on grocers’ shelves or brokers’ trucks.

There are no GMO apples in the marketplace now, nor will there be in the upcoming 2015 apple harvest season, USApple states. That is not to say they have not been abreast of the emergence of GMO fruit.

USApple had been preparing for Arctic deregulation for months and anticipating steps it could take to assist industry stakeholders in responding to their customers. It has also focused on how it can calm any consumer concerns about the new apples.

More GMO fruits are coming, according to Carter. “We are currently working to develop a number of additional nonbrowning varieties, beginning with Arctic Gala and Arctic Fuji,” he said. “We also have a number of other exciting products in our pipeline including apples with resistance to fire blight and apple scab, as well as other projects involving cherries, peaches and other tree fruits.”

Because apples take some time to penetrate the market, USApple feels consumers will have ample time to make clear, informed decisions on whether they wish to purchase Arctic Apples. And, the Association noted, “Consumer demand will inevitably determine the success of Arctic apples in the marketplace.”

COVER AND PHOTOS COURTESY OKANAGAN SPECIALTY FRUITS.