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Coming this Fall: Arctic Non-browning Apples

August 3, 2017
In a time of global famine and food insecurity here in the United States, I was pretty astonished to learn that 40 percent of apples that are shipped from orchards are never consumed, because they go bad before they can reach consumers.

Every Mom who has ever made a school lunch for her children knows that packing sliced apples can be a dicey proposition. Freshly cut apples can oxidize in a matter of hours, turning brown and soft. No kid wants to eat a mushy, brown apple.

Why do apples go brown so fast? It’s because they evolved to rot relatively quickly, so their seeds would get into the ground, germinate and produce more apple trees. With today’s orchards, however, the evolutionary mechanism is no longer needed.

Enter biotechnology.

Scientists have found a way to make a completely safe, delicious apple that won’t go brown. These apples require no preservatives, no anti-browning treatments, and parents can slice them knowing they’ll still be fresh when the lunch box is opened. Genetically modified apples arrive in select stores this fall.

I took my first bite of the non-browning, genetically modified (GM) Arctic Apple at our recent BIO convention in San Diego, and it was delicious.

The breakthrough was pioneered by the Canadian fruit grower, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, a subsidiary of the biotechnology company Intrexon. The apple underwent nine years of testing, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined in 2015 that it poses no significant health or environmental risks. The World Health Organization and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine agree.

So, how did they do it? The GM apple was made with precision breeding, using a technology known as gene silencing or RNA interference. When the apple’s genome was mapped, scientists found four genes that control a plant enzyme known as polyphenol oxidase (PPO). The science team used gene silencing to virtually eliminate PPO production, so the fruit doesn’t brown.

Arctic Apple trees are grown to bear fruit just like their conventional counterparts in orchards. The fruit they bear is nutritionally and compositionally virtually identical to non-GMO apples. The only difference is that when an Arctic Apple is sliced, it remains white and crispy to eat.

Genetically modified foods have been on the rise since the mid-1990s when farmers first started using seed varieties that are transgenic – resistant to pesticides and insects. The USDA notes that more than 90 percent of U.S. corn, upland cotton, soybeans, canola and sugar beets are processed using genetically modified varieties. The crops are created with recombinant DNA technology, where genes are transferred between organisms using a series of proven laboratory techniques.

Those who claim that food made from GMO corn and soy are unsafe have it exactly backward: Science has given us an efficient way to reduce or eliminate the need to spray chemicals on these crops that can be potentially harmful to humans and pets.

The real breakthrough here lies in the biotechnology process that enables scientists to transform plants more precisely and at lower costs. The Arctic Apple is one of the first GMO foods to be marketed directly to the consumer and not the farmer. There is also a bruise-resistant GM russet potato available in many supermarkets.

Genetically modified foods already have raised global food output by 20 to 30 percent and are feeding millions who otherwise would be facing starvation or malnutrition. The United Nations says the human race must grow 70 percent more food by 2050 just to keep up with population growth. Biotechnology is an absolutely essential part of any responsible strategy to feed the world.

Hopefully, these delicious new GM apples will help more people understand the power of science to address famine. Having tasted one myself, I’m optimistic. Biting is believing.