USDA Has Approved GE Non-Browning Apples. Is the Public Ready for Them?

The gene silencing technique used to develop Arctic apples hasn’t been thoroughly studied, critics say

I’ve been eating a lot of apples these days, mostly as part of my daily serving of salad. The fruit slices offer a perfect crisp and juicy counterpoint to the softer greens. Usually, I pre-slice the apples for my lunch salad. The slight browning that occurs as the slices oxidize from being exposed to air has never bothered me, but evidently some consumers find it unappetizing. Every year tens of tons of apples end up in in the trash, much of it due to browning and bruising. So does that mean there’s a market for genetically modified apples that don’t brown when cut?

Woman at a table with an apple and cutleryPhoto by daniellehelm/FlickrGetting people to warm up to genetically engineered apples might not be as easy as the company that created them envisions.

Neal Carter, founder and president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, thinks so. Carter’s small British Columbia-based company has created transgenic versions of the ubiquitous Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples, which don’t brown even when cut and left in the open for hours.

“By developing non-browning apples, we hope to create a consumption trigger for apples while simultaneously reducing food waste,” Carter said in an email interview. “Consumers increasingly demand convenience and consuming more calories from snacks, so we want to emulate the consumer trigger that ‘baby’ carrots initiated for carrots when they doubled carrot consumption simply by making them more ‘snackable.’”

Last month, the US Department of Agriculture approved Okanagan’s two GE varietals — called Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny — for commercial cultivation. “We expect to have small quantities of fruit available for test markets in late 2016, with increasing amounts of fruit becoming available each successive year in a slow, steady, market introduction,” Carter says. The last step that remains is a voluntary safety consultation with the Food and Drug Administration, which should get done soon. According to Okanagan, the apples will be labeled as Arctic®, but will not be labeled as genetically engineered.

The USDA approval — which would allow the transgenic apples to be planted and sold without specific oversight — was a big disappointment for environmental and consumer groups who say we don’t know enough about the unintended consequences of the relatively new kind of genetic engineering technique, called “gene silencing,” used to create these apples. (The USDA approval, incidentally, came just a day after Democrat Senators Barbara Boxer and Richard Blumenthal and Representative Peter DeFazio introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know bill, which requires mandatory labeling of all foods that contain GMOs.)

Gene silencing technologies basically enable the turning off, or “silencing,” of one or more target genes in a plant or animal in order to prevent formation of an unwanted protein that may be implicated in a disease or condition.

Arctic apples have been engineered using a gene silencing technique called ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi), which is based on manipulating RNA molecules in order to turn down the expression of a certain kind of enzyme, called polyphenol oxidase (PPO), which causes the apple’s flesh to brown when its cells are fractured from being cut, bitten into, or bruised. In comparison, earlier cut-and-splice GE techniques focused only on DNA manipulation.

Carter says suppressing the browning isn’t merely of cosmetic value. The browning reaction consumes healthful nutrients, including Vitamin C and phenolic compounds that provide apples’ color and flavor, while protecting against pathogens, he says. Therefore, silencing the enzyme may help the cut fruit “better retain its ideal nutritional content.” (Curiously, in the same email interview Carter called the browning “superficial.”)

Arctic Granny Photo courtsey of Okanagan Specialty FruitsAn Arctic Granny (right) doesn’t brown like a conventional Granny Smith apple (left) because the gene
that causes cut apples to oxidize when exposed to air has been silenced.

But critics of Arctic apples say the enzymes that have been suppressed are found not just in the fruit, but also throughout the tree, where impacts of the engineering have not been assessed.

“What we know is that in other plants, the PPO enzymes are known to boost pest and stress resistance, so if you silence [the enzymes’ expression] in the apple it’s possible that tree itself might become vulnerable to diseases,” says ecologist Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union. This, in turn could mean that the GE apple trees may need more pesticides or herbicides to compensate for their compromised defense systems, he says.

Consumers Union and other groups — including the Center for Food Safety and Friends of the Earth — allege that Okanagan did not analyze the other functions, apart from browning the fruit, which the PPO enzyme might have. Nor did it attempt to determine whether it has inadvertently silenced genes outside the PPO family. (Studies show that targeting one gene might unpredictably turn off, or down, unrelated genes.) They say the company also hasn’t researched adequately the potential effects on wild pollinators like bees, and the possibility that pollen from the transgenic trees may contaminate conventional and organic apple trees.

“The product is risky, it’s virtually unregulated, it’s unlabeled, un-assessed and unnecessary,” says Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “We think that it needs to be labeled and there should be adequate safety and health assessments of foods using RNAi technology.”

Okanagan counters that the technology it used is very precise, and chances of crosspollination are low because apple seeds don’t escape and grow in the wild (they are typically propagated via grafting). Even if someone deliberately planted a cross-pollinated seed, the non-browning trait wouldn’t be expressed in the fruit of the new tree, according to Okanagan.

“Arctic apples are the most tested apples on the entire planet, have zero novel proteins, and are proven to have the same nutrition and composition as their conventional counterparts,” Carter says. “We would certainly not be offering Arctic fruit to the public if we were not 100 percent convinced that they are just as safe and healthful as all apples.”

Carter is confident that the GE apples will be well received by consumers and the food service industry. A number of consumer research surveys, and taste tests have shown that “the vast majority of apple-eaters” are interested in Arctic apples and “dozens of growers have expressed interest in planting the first two varieties,” he says.

But getting people to warm up to GE apples might not be as easy as Carter envisions.

While the US Apple Association —a national body that represents the nation’s 7,500 apple growers and more than 1,000 firms involved in the apple business — has overcome its initial concerns and is now supportive of Arctic apples (“these apples would provide the same nutrition benefits as non-GMO apples,” Wendy Brannen, the association’s director of consumer health and public relations, told EIJ in a written statement), many apple growers are still wary of the product. They worry that GE apples could harm the long-held image of the apple as a quintessentially healthy and wholesome fruit.

“Our concerns have to do with marketing. We are worried about what potential impacts [GE apples] could have on our apple sales both here and abroad,” says Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents the tree fruit industry in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. “When you have a product like an apple that’s very symbolic in our culture, and you bring in a technology that a certain element of the public has concerns about, it’s going to be a headache,” he says. “As far as I know there’s a lot of concern around the labeling issue and these apples won’t be labeled as GMOs, so how will we be able to prove that our apples are non GMO?”

Besides, Schlect says, browning hasn’t been a marketing problem for apples, which are one of the most valuable fruit crops in the United States. The 2012 apple crop was valued at nearly $3.1 billion. The fruit is grown in every state in the US. Washington produces about 70 percent of the nation’s apples in the United States. Other leading states include New York, Pennsylvania, California, and Virginia.

On the consumer side, Okanagan hopes its GE apples will appeal to the food service industry, which currently uses lemon juice or some other acidic medium to delay browning. But it might be a tough sell there, too. Earth Island Journal contacted three major food companies — McDonalds, Gerber, and Chipotle — and asked if they have plans to use Arctic apples in their food products. All said “no.” Nestlé, the parent company of Gerber, went so far as to add that it was “actively reviewing” its product portfolio to determine what actions it could take to address consumer concerns about the use of GE ingredients in its products.

The Arctic apples raise a much larger question of oversight. Many new kinds of transgenic crops and foods being invented by biotech companies use new and complex genetic engineering techniques, like gene silencing, that federal regulators haven’t assessed for health and environmental safety.

Regulation of GE crops in the US is divided among three agencies: the Environmental Projection Agency, the FDA, and the USDA. Of the three, the USDA has the greatest regulatory power over GE crops. The agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is responsible for permitting trials and deregulating transgenic crops for commercial cultivation. But under the USDA’s interpretation of federal law, the agency’s authority over genetically engineered crops is limited to only those that contain plant pest genes or otherwise fit into the agency’s narrow definition of a “plant pest.” (The EPA can only regulate crops genetically engineered to carry their own pesticides, for example a gene for a Bt toxin. The FDA is responsible for regulating the safety of GE crops that are eaten by humans or animals, but in general it considers most GE crops as “substantially equivalent” to non-GE crops and only requires biotech companies to go through a voluntary consultation process before a new GE crop is marketed.)

As a result, many GE crops, like the Arctic apples, are managing to evade regulatory oversight by claiming that their genetic manipulations do not involve plant pest genes. Since 2011, the USDA has declared that it lacks authority to regulate at least 20 GE crops and organisms, including the Arctic apples, a GE loblolly pine, and two GE potato varieties. The list of new transgenic crops seeking exemption from regulation is growing steadily, and many more are sure to come down the pipeline in the near future. Okanagan, for instance, is currently working to develop additional non-browning apple varieties, as well as other products involving cherries, peaches and other tree fruits.

“We need to have a better regulatory system,” says Hansen of the Consumers Union. He says that if it chooses to do so, the USDA agency could have oversight over these new GE crops under its statutory power to regulate noxious weeds, but so far the agency hasn’t shown any interest in doing that. At the very least, the USDA should hold off on deregulating these products until further research, Hansen says. Instead, the agency is “abdicating its responsibility to protect the environment and us.”

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