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Will one "bad" apple spoil the bunch?

It seems rotten apples may be on their way out. A genetically engineered non-browning apple, developed in Canada, called Arctic, has recently been approved for sale in Canada and the United States. The regulatory bodies in both countries feel that the product is safe for human consumption. With these apples projected to hit store shelves sometime in 2017, many are now wondering how consumers will respond to this new product. Innovation is certainly not new to the apple industry as consumers have had access to well over 7000 varieties over the years. But this time, the very visible, non-browning feature makes this novelty an interesting market study.

Obviously, the Arctic apple is intrinsically linked to the whole debate on GMOs. Many consumers are wary of genetically modified seeds used by farmers in their fields. Some have questioned the virtues of industrialized farming and its so-called denaturalized model. Though there is evidence that genetically modified seeds have made agriculture more efficient, skeptics remain.

But seeding, farming and biotechnology are all vague, remote concepts for many city slickers. For many consumers, not just city dwellers, it is challenging to appreciate how genetic engineering serves them, not just agriculture. This time though, with the Arctic apple, research is providing a product with a noticeable benefit consumers can bring home.

This is not to suggest that this new variety of apple can guarantee market success. It could go either way. The product could contribute to consumers gaining a new appreciation for the work being done to improve agricultural produce, and apple sales may increase. This would be a welcome result since Canadian apples sales have plateaued in recent years. Consumption of apples in Canada per capita currently sits at around 11 kilos, a decent number given that only the banana exceeds our dearly beloved apple, but most apples are grown here, not bananas.

The sale of salads and sandwiches containing apple pieces may also increase as a result of this new non-browning feature. These products could look more appealing for longer periods, meaning less food waste. This could create a new market for apples. Who hasn’t been guilty of throwing an apple away, at one time or another, when it’s become brown and repellant?

On the other hand, there is a potential risk that consumers who are categorically opposed to genetic engineering will avoid all apples, and the entire industry would be affected as a result. In 2012, a survey in B.C., where the apple was developed, suggested that 69% of respondents were not comfortable with the non-browning phenom. Many describe GMOs essentially as the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply. Those are strong words indeed.

Consumers should realize that many genetically engineered produce are already sold in Canada. Currently, genetically engineered ingredients in food are available for purchase. But of course, given that GMO-labelling is voluntary in Canada, consumers are unaware of the status of their foods while visiting the produce aisle. With proper labelling rules in Canada, which would capture the essence of transparency and consumer education, there would be likely less uncertainty around the release of the Arctic Apple. In other words, food products with genetically engineered ingredients should be labeled, full stop. Regardless of whether or not the rules change, many who care about that half-eaten apple left on the kitchen counter may be tempted to give this apple a try.

On a final—but no less interesting—note, the Canadian-designed apple was actually approved by the USDA before it got approved by Health Canada. This certainly speaks to how incredibly slow our system is in evaluating new food products, compared to the U.S. Things are getting better, but we need to get our act together if innovation in Canadian agrifood is to be fully embraced.

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