US regulator okays non-browning GM apples

14 February 2015

The US government on Friday approved the commercial planting of genetically engineered apples that are resistant to turning brown when sliced or bruised.

The developer, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, says it believes the non-browning feature will be popular with both consumers and food service companies because it will make sliced apples more appealing. The feature could also reduce the number of apples discarded because of bruising.

But many executives in the apple industry say they worry that the biotech apples, while safe to eat, will face opposition from some consumers, possibly tainting the wholesome image of the fruit that reputedly ''keeps the doctor away''.

They are also concerned that it could hurt exports of apples to countries that do not like genetically modified foods.

''In the marketplace we participate in, there doesn't seem to be room for genetically modified apples now,'' said John Rice, co-owner of Rice Fruit Company in Gardners, Pa, which bills itself as the largest apple packer in the East.

The Department of Agriculture, which approved the apples for commercial planting, said on Friday that it had considered these issues. However, it said that under the law, approval is based on whether a genetically modified crop poses a threat to other plants. The department determined that the apples posed no such risk.

The so-called Arctic apples - which will be available in the Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties - are genetically engineered in a way to suppress the production of an enzyme that causes browning when cells in the apple are injured, from slicing, for example. But over time the apples will still rot and turn brown.

In November, the Agriculture Department approved a genetically-engineered potato developed by the J R Simplot Company that uses a similar technique to prevent browning.

The apple will join relatively few other examples of genetically modified fresh produce, including papaya and some sweet corn. Most of the genetically modified food Americans eat is processed, containing ingredients made from engineered corn or soybeans.

The engineered trait is also one of the few meant to appeal to consumers; most of the traits so far, like insect resistance and herbicide resistance, have been aimed at helping farmers.

Gerald Cole, an organic farmer in Taylor, Tex, said supporters of G.M.O. labelling could not compete with the lobbying of big agribusinesses.

The approval is also unusual in that Okanagan, which is based in Summerland, British Columbia, is a small company. Most genetically modified crops are developed by giant seed and chemical companies like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer.

Neal Carter, the president of Okanagan, said the apple had ''a lot of silent supporters'' and would be popular with the food service business. ''I can't believe how many requests we've had just this morning to our website from people who want to buy trees,'' he said. The roughly 45 investors in the privately held company include many people in the apple business, he said.

It will take a few years for Arctic apples to be widely available because trees have to first be planted and then become mature enough to bear fruit.


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