I had the chance to chat May 16 with Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., Summerland, British Columbia. The firm is seeking U.S. and Canadian approval of what would be the first genetically engineered apple brought to market in North America.
Tom Karst: Step by step, you are getting closer to what you hope will be commercialization of the genetically engineered Arctic apple.
Neal Carter Neal Carter: It is a long process, with no confirmed timelines or guarantees of success. That’s one thing about entering this kind of thing is that there is no pure exit strategy; you can’t predict it.
Karst: What are the Arctic apple varieties that you are seeking approval for?
Carter: The petition document covers an Arctic golden delicious and an Arctic granny smith. People say, “Why those and why not others?” Both of these varieties have pretty severe browning problems. They bruise easily and there are a lot of issues of getting them from the tree to the packing shed to retail. We think they are well suited to the technology. At the same time, we are working on getting the data together for a gala and a fuji. Our Arctic program isn’t going to stop with the golden and the granny; those are just the first out the pipe. Next would be the gala and fuji and we will continue to work on other varieties, exciting varieties. People are coming to us with interest, with varieties they own, to make them non-browning.
Karst: What is evolution of how growers and others in the supply chain feel about genetically engineered apples, particularly the Arctic apple? I know there has been some negative response in the past; has that changed or is the industry unconvinced at this point?
Carter: Probably the most common thing we hear is that they don’t have any issue over the science. They are not against GM or biotech derived crops, they are just concerned about the market, consumer backlash or consumer response and how that might impact the industry. That’s a very common statement we hear. I’m an apple grower too, and it has always been a big concern for us as a company. But what we have been doing over this last year or more is a lot of educating, a lot of one-on-one meeting with key industry participants ; growers, packers, shippers, sales desks, brokers and others. In general, we have some very favorable responses. There is a lot of interest in an apple that doesn’t need an antioxidant dip and can be used in a whole range of fresh cut and foodservice applications. There was a lot of excitement from foodservice for it. The people who are ready to go and want to slice and dice them right away, I get nervous because I wonder if they are giving sufficient concern to the consumer side of the question. We always bring that up. We are very transparent and we are pushing pretty hard that any testing is done it is all done properly. I think it is coming forward in a positive way. I think the educating work we are doing with industry in particular is waylaying some of the fears. People realize we are not going to have 1,000 acres of these planted overnight and suddenly there are all sorts of Arctic apples around, and a potential for a negative impact on the apple business. What we are trying to do now is move from having field trials that we grew Arctic apple trees for regulatory data to having test blocks done by select growers so we can produce a little more fruit so we can go to the next step of test marketing and having some apples to do some of this work with. It is not wholesale release and everybody is going to start planting Arctic apples.