Consumers Should Get To Try The First Commercial Biotech Apple

posted in: Commentary | 27

There are some unique apples that could be coming to the market in the near future.  They will taste exactly like some familiar varieties, but their distinguishing feature will be that they won’t turn brown after they are sliced.  Scientists employed by a grower-owned fruit cooperative in British Columbia used genetic engineering techniques to turn off the genes for the enzymes that cause cut apples to turn brown (polyphenol oxidases).  These non-browning apples will be offered under the “Arctic Apple” brand.  Unfortunately, there are some groups who are actively trying to block this effort.  Let’s consider why consumers should get the chance to try these new apples.

A Real, Consumer-oriented Trait

Many have complained that biotech crops only benefit farmers, not consumers.  That is a false dichotomy.  When crops are more productive, easier to grow, or entail less risk for farmers that produce them, consumers get the benefits of a low cost, dependable food supply.  Still, it is refreshing to see a trait that is designed completely with consumers in mind.

Folks like Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety, who routinely oppose all biotech crops,  have used their standard approach of coining a catchy, disparaging term.  They call these, “Botox Apples” with the implication that this is something with only a cosmetic purpose.  This entirely misses the point.  The appearance of food is extremely important to the enjoyable, multi-sense experience of eating (taste, small, mouth feel and appearance).  Browning apples are not appealing. They also don’t taste so great.  Yes, you can treat cut apples with lemon juice, but that changes the flavor.  An apple that can be sliced and not quickly brown could be used in packaged salads, on salad bars, in packed lunches and in many other settings where this popular fruit is not used today.  It would be nice to be able to eat part of an apple and then finish it later.  Browning is not a “cosmetic”  issue. It is a consumer convenience and eating experience issue.  We should get to see if we like it.

How These Apples Stand Vs Other Standard GMO Crop

Big Companies: This apple was developed without any involvement from “big companies.”  A grower group very frugally and patiently funded this research for many years.

“Foreign Genes:” There are no “foreign genes” in Arctic Apples.  All that is different about them is that certain apple genes are “turned off.”  Most genes in cells of an apple or any other organism are turned off most of the time.  The genes to grow roots or leaves are turned off in apple fruits just as our genes to develop the features of an eye are turned off in all the other parts of our body.  The scientists that developed the Arctic Apple simply used a natural mechanism to turn off the genes that make the enzymes that turn apples brown when they are cut.

Labeling: Some people are concerned about unlabeled GMOs.  It is actually quite easy to know and even to avoid GMO foods if someone is so inclined, but in this case, the apples will be explicitly branded as GMO. In an industry like apples, “identity preservation” is a completely feasible and normal practice (there is a PLU sticker on every fruit or at least on every clamshell).  Those who want to try the Arctic apples can easily do so, and those who don’t can easily make other choices.

What About Organic Growers? Could these apples “contaminate” organic apples and threaten their certification?  Not unless someone works really hard to do that.  Apple trees are not grown from seeds (like virtually all fruits).  If you plant the seed from your favorite apple (say a ‘Fuji’), the tree you will grow will not be a Fuji.  It probably won’t even have decent eating apples.  For thousand of years, people have known that if you find a fruit that is good, you need to propagate it from cuttings or buds, not seeds.  These are grafted onto rootstocks that have been selected for pest resistance and in most cases for dwarfing so the trees don’t get too tall to safely pick.  Actually, to get a good crop, growers need to make sure that the bees that visit each tree have typically gotten pollen from some other variety of apples, even crab apples, because otherwise fruit set is less likely.

There is a small chance that a bee will carry pollen from a GMO apple to a few flowers in an organic block.  A few of the seeds in those organic apples might be pollinated with the GMO pollen.  Only a small part of the seeds (the embryo) in those apples will have that extremely minor change.  Apple seeds shouldn’t be eaten.  They contain compounds that can generate cyanide – a rather potent poison.  Consumers routinely discard them.  Only if someone really, really wanted to, could they even document the “contamination.”

Organic has always had the rule that if unapproved pesticide residues were found on organic crops, they would still be certified organic as long as it was unintentional on the part of the grower (e.g. spray drift).  The organic certification system never actually tests for this, but the precedent is clear.  If it is minor and unintentional is isn’t an issue even for produce you eat after paying the organic premium.  Why would this be different for a silenced gene that only has a context in ripe fruit, that is present in a rare apple seed embryo in a seed that is logically discarded?

Who Is Opposed To The Commercialization of the Arctic Apple?

A predictable list of anti-GMO groups like the Center for Food Safety are opposed to these apples. This time they have had to reach for objections, but their stance is no surprise.  What is not entirely surprising, but disturbing, is that there is opposition from groups of regular apple growers.  I’ve worked with the apple industry on many occasions over the past two decades, and I have a great deal of respect for these folks.  I can understand what is behind their reaction, but I would like to challenge these friends to step back and think about the ramifications of their swift, negative reaction.

Brand Protection

Technology opponents have long known that they have the most leverage if they can threaten an entity with a valuable consumer brand with potential, controversial attention.  The apple industry is concerned that even though the Arctic apples would be clearly labeled as such, activists could smear the entire apple industry “brand” and make consumers afraid that they might be eating something the don’t want.  (Would activists seek to threaten the livelihood of uninvolved farmers to achieve their goals?  Absolutely.)

Remembering the “Alar Controversy”

There is certainly history behind “brand” concern by apple growers and marketers.  Back in 1989, an edition of the popular news show, “60 Minutes” raised concerns about a purported carcinogen that was being sprayed on apples and which was disproportionately represented in children’s diets because they drink lots of apple juice.  The science behind the carcinogen issue turned out to be completely bogus, but that didn’t prevent a huge decline in consumer consumption of apples.  I’m sure there are plenty of folks left in the apple industry who remember the lesson that truth isn’t any sort of certain protection against “brand damage” by disinformation.

What is the Apple “Brand?”

The apple industries of various states, provinces and regions have spent a fair amount on “brand building”, but a general rule in the industry is that produce brands are really difficult to build. Think about apples and all the history behind that name!  The forbidden fruit in the Adam and Eve story has been, inaccurately, pictured as an apple.  The witch in the classic, Disney-enshrined story of Snow White used a poison apple.  This fruit has been commandeered as the symbol of a rather successful computing technology brand.  We have common sayings like “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch, ” or “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  The nature of the apple “brand” is something far beyond the marketing power of some farmers in BC.

A Marketing Lesson Not To Be Forgotten

There was a time, before the Alar scare, when the apple industry believed that it was competing with bananas and oranges for “share of stomach.”  Apples were one of the few crops that were available in fresh form year-round.  The industry tried to define the “apple brand” as a Red Delicious of a given shape.  That whole strategy crashed in the Alar scare. Grower/shippers then broke out of that mold and market different apple varieties by name (Granny’s, Fujis, Pink Lady’s, Jazz, Jonagolds…).  What the industry and the retailers learned is that consumers are perfectly capable of deciding what they like and don’t like, and selecting it by name.  I would argue that this is the same thing that could happen with the Arctic apple if consumers are given the chance to try it.

A Plea To My Friends In The Apple Business

I almost never oppose grower opinion.  I remember Alar as vividly as many of you do.  I’ve seen what anti-GMO activists have been able to achieve in many instances.  I know it is a burden to be the first US/Canada crop where a new biotech option could be launched for consumers by growers.  It is never fun to be the pioneers.  But if you step back and think about how much of your industry depends on technology that consumers might not understand, is it good idea to give anti-science activists an easy win?

You Can Voice Your Opinion

The public comment period is now open to let the USDA know what you think.  They are already getting lots of comments from people who understand very little about these apples.  It would be great to balance that with more informed responses.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at [email protected]

Follow Steve Savage:

Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) with >30 years of experience in agricultural technology. He has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent. He also has a little vineyard in his back yard near San Diego. His speaking website is DrSteveSavage. His blogging website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc

  • Thats Pretty incredible. I love slicing apples to snack on for lunch during the week and usually will lightly coat them with lemon or lime juice to prevent the slices from oxidizing for a few days. While it does work extremely well and actually taste quite good, It messes with the option of dipping the slices in peanut butter (the sour taste doesn’t go well). Great Post!

  • pyst

    I approve of the marketing of this particular apple assuming what
    you say about the labeling clearly stating that the apple is gmo.

    I am much more concerned about the gmo pollen and ovules,
    and the greater than small likelihood that there will be
    enviromental contamination.

    Also I would quibble with your contention that fresh apples are available
    all year round. Actually they are stored out of season.

    • Pyst,

      Thanks for the reasonable attitude about a voluntarily labeled GMO option.

      “Environmental contamination” is really not an issue here. If you can imagine a way that it would be let us know. As I said, apples are not grown from seed so in the rare case that there is cross pollination, it means nothing from a practical point of view.

      You are right that apples are stored out of season. That isn’t a negative thing. It has actually been one of the major ways that we have been able to eat non-tropical fruits all year since the 1950s or 60s. From a public health point of view that has been an extremely positive thing.

    • Ewan R

      enviromental contamination.

      I have the feeling that in this case environmental contamination means something along the lines of “something I don’t like being in the environment” rather than anything meaningful (ie something being in the environment and causing actual measurable damage – sure by the dictionazi stance you can claim contamination just because something is present despite causing no adverse effects (my cubicle, for instance, is currently contaminated with a stack of New Yorkers which I don’t particularly want to be there) but in the context of using it as an argument against something… not such a good ‘un (nice and emotive though!)

  • Z. Perez

    I will have to do further research before making a determination. It is easy for some to accept and not so easy for others. I understand the concern regarding environmental contamination that was comically and easily brushed away. I do not believe it is imagined and know that people people will have that same concern.

    I believe any and all GMO foods not just apples should be labeled, the public should have the option to research this and make their own determination of if they would like to purchase it or not.

    • Z, Perez, I want to offer a different point of view about the phrase “environmental contamination”.

      Can you see that the use of the word contamination is prejudicial? I am against contamination and I am in favor of the “enrichment of biodiversity” – yet they are two different terms that both mean the same thing. Strip away the colored phrases and it comes down to examining the actual properties – good, bad or neutral – of particular novel genes that were not formerly part of the species gene pool.

      The usual broad-brush anti-GMO concern is about “genes escaping that can never be called back”. But there are no good reasons why only the genes transferred by recombinant DNA technology deserve special opprobrium. Why does the origin of a gene matter? Novel genes arise all the time by both natural and artificial processes.

      Some of the anti-GMO sentiment is based on the false idea that “natural” is somehow better. But, even if we accept that idea, we still have numerous examples of genes in our food that originated in artificial ways, like exposure to gamma rays and chemicals. The person who believes that only natural genes should be trusted still owes us an explanation for why DNA transfer is worse than gamma radiation.

    • Ewan R

      I believe any and all GMO foods not just apples should be labeled, the public should have the option to research this and make their own determination of if they would like to purchase it or not.

      Do you single GMO out particularly here, or are you of the same opinion for any method which may bring new varieties or traits about.

      Should varieties created through chemical mutagenesis be labeled?

      Should varieties created through radioactive mutagenesis be labeled?

      Should plants grafted onto rootstock be labeled as such?

      Should we label plants which are grown on alkaline vs acidic soil?

      Should there be a listing of all herbicides used in the past 2 years? 3? 6 months? (on the same field, or within a mile?)

      Should the political affiliation of the farmer who produced the crop be a mandatory inclusion, should this maybe only be the case if the farmer makes donations to the political party? (Frankly this makes a lot more sense (to me), while at the same time being utterly foolish)

      Where does the madness end? Why, when you draw a Venn diagram of possible things that could be labeled does GMO, in your mind, fall in the intersection of ‘things that could be labelled’ and ‘things that should be labeled’ rather than the intersection of ‘things that could be labeled’ and ‘silly reasons to label’?

      • Too bad labeling advocates haven’t responded. I’d like to hear why gmo should be labeled and the others not.

        • Ewan R

          Because Monsanto….

          one would assume.

          Or because cigarettes…
          pharmaceuticals…

          anything else not actually related directly…

          (although I will be surprised at anything other than abject silence on the matter – it ain’t a rhetorical question, I just phrased it coated with layers of rhetoric and scorn to score funny points with people who share my ideals, because that is of approximate importance to me as actually getting an answer! (both of which I rate rather highly(alas my own personal enjoyment(mostly of parentheses!)gets in the way a lot)))

  • pyst

    I support labeling food products that contain gmos.
    I oppose lifeform patents and the ongoing intellectual
    property overreach by the biotech lobby.

    • ok, that’s nice. Let’s propose for the sake of argument that the non-browning trait was a mutation and that it was labeled. Then what?

  • The mutation thing is a great example. If you asked the average consumer if they would like every food that was the product of mutation, I’m sure they would say yes not knowing that a huge number of foods are the products of either random or enhanced mutation breeding. If you asked the average consumer (and I have many times), would you want all cloned fruit labeled as such? They would say, “yes.” Of course almost all fruit crops are vegetatively propagated, and thus technically “cloned.”

    Oh on the intellectual property rights. I wonder if pyst is against all the patented roses and other flower varieties that have been being patented for decades?

    • This is an excellent question. The polls that say consumers want GMOs labelled are loaded questions.
      If you ask people an open ended question such as “what additional labels would you like to see on foods?” Would they say GMO, mutant, patents, etc? One survey says no, but I’d love to see more unbiased surveys.

  • pyst

    Is all evolution mutation? Are we certain we understand the mechanisms
    of evolutionary change? Are monsanto, dupont, etc. concerned
    beyond the corporate obligation to the stockholders about things
    like biodiversity and habitat?

    At bio.org one can see that the legislative agenda of biotech is to further the intellectual property rights of corporations and to increase acreage of food crops for
    ethanol. Which puts lie to the bit about feeding billions because
    that not what corporations do anyway.

    I also will repond to the question as to why gmos should be labeled.
    Because of the patents and without the patents this technology
    would likely not be competitive in the marketplace. I do not want
    to support the lifeform patent marketplace or the corporations that traffic
    in patents or the legislative minefield of patent litigation.

    The food safety “debate ” part of it is not my personal agenda.

    • Ewan R

      What is your position on hybrids and varieties then? Should they all be labelled? The legal protections are pretty much the same as a patent, and corporations dominate the landscape.

    • Charles M. Rader

      pyst, you have finally made it clear that your concern about GMOs is really about excessive corporate dominance, not about anything bad about the technology of gene transfer. So you want labeling as a way that other consumers who share your point of view can rebel against corporate power by boycotting certain products. Thanks for clarifying that.

      As for patenting life forms, I think the issue is somewhat complicated. We certainly want to encourage invention, which is why patents exist, but it is also true that life forms are fundamentally different from machinery. I think that the sequence of a naturally occurring gene should not be patentable. I also think it would be useful to discuss this further.

      But plant patents are not any more an issue of corporate power than other patents are. A patented drug gives a corporation power over life and death. Even a trademark gives a corporation power.

  • pyst

    re: Ewan and patent protections for hybrids and varieties.
    I oppose any lifeform patents or lifeform intellectual property rights.

    • Charles M. Rader

      pyst, now I’m confused. I thought you were concerned about big corporations getting too much power from patents, but apparently your purpose is, instead, to prevent any developer from getting rewarded for creating intellectual property in life sciences.

      OK, fair enough. But now explain why only GMOs need to be labeled. Will they still need to be labeled when the patents run out? If I develop a GMO plant and don’t seek a patent, does it still need a label?

    • pyst,
      I’m not sure what you mean by life form patents. I’ve looked at literally thousands of patents over the years in the biotech space, and I don’t think that would be an accurate description. The two key requirements for getting a patent are novelty and “the hand of man.” You have to demonstrate “due diligence” in terms of identifying utility. Then, getting a patent is absolutely no guarantee of income. In a competitive discovery program you need to file very early on, and only a small percentage of filed patents ever become important as protection for a commercial product. You seem to be implying that this process is just like saying “dibs” on something out of nature. Its not like that.

    • Ewan R

      Why do you hate plant breeders?

      (cheap shot, for humour, reply can be as meaningless as this post!)

  • Millie

    I want them labeled just in case those of you who think you know everything about gene mutation or manipulation might have mis calculated and be full of hot air. OH, btw, that was meant to be humorous. The real reason is because we all have the right to know what we are eating and where it comes from. Back in the ’50, everyone bought the premise about margarine and how bad butter was for them. Let me hear your take on margarine and just how good it is for us now. Or the addition of the chemicals (that were never reported and even lied about)in the tobacco industry that harmed so many people that they were sued for gigantic amounts of money the government has squandered already. And now you talk down to people just like they did back then, and say “you are ignorant and we know everything. Well, folks have “gotten some smarts” and demand to be told the truth so WE can decide for a change. Just put a label on it and let me decide. No need for a reply. I read everything up to my post and I don’t find it quite as amusing as some of the, and I am taking a stab in the dark here, more educated posters.

    • Ewan R
      • Ewan R

        *tumbleweeds*

        (organic ones)

    • Millie,
      I’m well aware of the margarine thing. I avoided foods with “partially hydrogenated vegetable oils” for 20 years before people really focused on transfats. I’ve written about “Why We Ever Ate Transfats In The First Place.” http://blog.sustainablog.org/2011/05/trans-fats-facts/

      Plant biotech has a very different history. People in academia, regulatory bodies and industry were meeting and talking through health and environmental issues many years before there was ever a single commercial acre planted. I’m not saying there can ever be zero risk with any new technology, but I doubt that any major technology has seen a greater effort to anticipate risk.

      http://www.biofortified.org/2012/05/major-scientific-conference-convened-to-review-the-safety-of-gmo-crops/

    • Charles M. Rader

      Millie, You want these labels because The real reason is because we all have the right to know what we are eating and where it comes from.

      I don’t think you show much respect for the rights of others. Sure you have a right to want to know what is in your food, but someone else has, equally, the right to not want to tell you. You then have the option of not buying your food from him. Lacking some very good reason, the usual ethic is to avoid compelling anyone to do what they don’t want to do.

      It’s been pointed out to you (by others) that all sorts of information exists that you might want and it’s clearly not practical to put every feature you could possibly want on a label. The obvious solution to that quandary is to let the vendor attract you to the features which will encourage you to buy the product. In this case, it’s a “GMO-free” label. Look around. The supermarkets are full of such labels. No new laws were needed. I’ve asked repeatedly why this is not good enough. It has obvious advantages. The cost of the labeling is borne by the people who want it. The information communicated is identical to the information communicated by labeling everything else “may contain GMO ingredients”.

  • Charles I think an ‘organic’ label will cover it for Millie, so no need to get hot under the collar about her needs. I love this rhetoric. It’s so interesting in terms of cultural studies. Think power; dominance; monopolies; conflict of interest etc. Oh and reference to ‘risk’. Oh so subjective, based mainly on qualitative measures I believe? Sort of like a noughts and crosses game? And of course regulated by very busy people, who probably don’t get paid much. Tell me its different?

  • Oh and just wondering what research was done to determine if consumers wanted an apple that didn’t go brown? And when they said yes, was the question asked. Do you want us to breed one using gm technology? Or was it decided to rely on the ignorance of the consumer and inadequate labelling laws. Just wondering….