It might have taken almost 20 years, but we got there in the end: the world’s first GM apples that don’t turn brown when cut or bruised have just been approved for consumption by the US government.
These so-called “Arctic” fruits were developed by a small Canadian biotech firm called Okanagan Specialty Fruits, and at the moment they come in two varieties: Granny Smith and Golden Delicious, but the company is already working towards adding the nonbrowning trait in Fuji and Gala apples.
Unlike many GM foods which are designed to benefit the farmer, for example by endowing crops with drought or herbicide resistance, these apples have been created with the consumer in mind since brown or bruised fruit is unappealing. However, Okanagan also points out that browning costs each link in the supply chain, thus solving this issue can offer savings on the farm, at the packaging phase, in shops and also in foodservice. For example, as highlighted by NPR, companies serving sliced apples have to treat them with various antioxidant chemicals to prevent them from turning, but these varieties negate the need for that.
“Right now, to make fresh-cut apple slices and put them in the bag, 35 or 40 percent of the cost is the anxioxidant treatment,” explains Okanagan president Neal Carter. “So you could make a fresh-cut apple slice 30 percent cheaper.”
The reason that apples go brown when sliced or bruised is because the injury introduces oxygen into the flesh of the fruit. When this happens, an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase (PPO) reacts with certain ingredients in the tissue called phenolic compounds, oxidizing them to a precursor molecule that then gets converted into a brown-colored secondary product.
To prevent this from happening, Okanagan scientists engineered their Arctic apples so that they produce significantly less of the PPO enzyme. But rather than snipping out the DNA segments that are responsible for this oxidation, they actually added in extra copies of the PPO genes which cause the apple to respond by switching off the lot of them. Of course, the apples can still go brown from rotting, but the immediate browning reaction is thwarted.
Many anti-GMO advocates are against the insertion of genes from one organism into a different organism, so Okanagan hopes that using apple genes will eliminate some concerns. But environmental groups have already expressed criticisms of the apples, claiming they are unnecessary and will taint the wholesome image of the fruit. Some groups are also putting pressure on food companies to reject the apples and want to see that the apples are labeled as GM, but others argue that doing this will immediately “demonize” them.
Although the apples have already received a lot of opposition, they were approved for commercial planting by the Department of Agriculture following a rigorous assessment of the safety of the apples, NYT reports. It was determined that these apples pose no threat to plants, animals or other agriculture and that farming them posed no significant risk to the environment.
Because Okanagan is small, they don’t intend to mass produce the apples themselves, but rather license them to commercial growers for a one-time fee. It’ll take a while for the trees to grow, but the company expects the apples to reach markets by 2017.