Canadian apple grower opens GMO debate with non-browning fruit

Okanagan grower got approval from Health Canada last week to market apples

As Canadian orchardist Neal Carter watched carrots go from a boring vegetable that people thoughtlessly tossed into soup to a popular on-the-run snack, he wondered if there was a way to turn the humble apple into the next convenience food craze.

Problem was, unlike carrots, apples quickly turn brown once cut into bite-sized pieces. In order to take advantage of new business opportunities for his crop, Carter figured he had to eliminate the problem of enzymatic oxidation, which causes fruit to become discoloured.

"Carrots in 1988 were things people put in stew and soups and then they developed fresh-cut carrots where they cut them and tumbled them and put them in a bag and carrot consumption doubled,'' said Carter, founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. in Summerland, B.C. "They've made carrots a more convenient food item.

"We thought, 'Wow, if we could just do this with apples, we could increase apple consumption, make them more convenient.'''

And with that, Carter hatched the idea of his genetically engineered Arctic Apples, which maintain their pristine flesh after being cut because the genes that trigger browning have been replaced with non-browning genes.

Last week, Carter got a huge boost when the company received approval from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada and the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. to grow and market Arctic Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties commercially.

The CFIA said Arctic Apples "are as safe and nutritious as traditional apple varieties'' while Health Canada said they have concluded the Arctic Apple "is safe for consumption, still has all its nutritional value and therefore does not differ from other apples available on the market.''

The approvals come after more than three years of review by Canadian authorities and follow U.S. deregulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last month.

While Carter says nothing from another plant species is involved in the creation of Arctic Apples, opponents of genetically modified food claim he is messing with nature.

"We really just think it's a solution to a problem that doesn't exist,'' said Sarah Dobec, a board member of the Canadian Organic Growers based in Toronto. "Apples brown for a reason and that's nature telling us that it's slowly degrading or oxidizing, so to remove that function of the biology of the apple doesn't seem to serve anybody really.''

Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, said a 2012 survey of 1,501 respondents commissioned by the BC Fruit Growers' Association and the Federation of Quebec Apple Growers suggested a majority of Canadians didn't want the Arctic Apple approved.

"We're seeing a tremendous amount of anger and confusion from Canadians over this issue of the genetically modified apple,'' she said from Ottawa. ``People want to know how to avoid it.''

But Health Canada says after 12 years of reviewing biotechnology derived foods to ensure they're as safe and nutritious as foods in the marketplace, it is not aware of any published scientific evidence that shows them to be less safe than traditional foods.

Carter, 57, and his wife Louisa, who have been growing apples and cherries in their 25-hectare orchard for 20 years, had noticed a decline in apple consumption in recent years.

"If you're an apple grower that's really not good news,'' said Carter.

In addition to the browning issue, he attributes part of the decline to the ease of eating packaged snack foods.

"An apple's too big a commitment,'' said Carter, who has worked for more than 30 years as a bioresource engineer. "In a fast-paced world, people on the go and all the rest, grabbing an apple and munching it down as you drive to work or head someplace or grab a coffee or whatever else, it just wasn't the culture anymore.''

The Arctic Apples won't be available overnight. In the U.S., a small quantity may be available in 2016, while Canadians may be able to sample the fruit in the fall of 2017.

Carter sees plenty of ways in which Arctic Apples could be put to good use, including juices, fruit leathers, bagged snacks and salad bars.

He says there are other strains of Arctic Apples to come, especially after Okanagan Specialty Fruits was bought last month by U.S.-based Intrexon Corp., which specializes in synthetic biology.

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