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.
Karst: What is the market that you see for the Arctic apple? Is it primarily the fresh cut application?
Carter: The key driver for us has always been fresh cut. Way back when we started this company and introduced this technology, it was all about getting rid of the antioxidant dips and making apples have their own natural flavor and not having the antioxidant off flavoring, and getting a better tasting, chemical free fresh cut apple out there that is competitively priced to compete with other fresh cut products like carrots, celery, peppers and other fruits. I think that continues to be where we see most of the interest. But there is a lot of interest in foodservice, using more apples in foodservice as a plate garnish and in salads, where currently apples are not being used in foodservice to any large degree. That would help increase apple consumption, which is really what is behind our whole company’s objectives.
Karst: What about labeling Arctic apples? If the Arctic apple is approved and commercialized, will it have to be labeled as genetically engineered on fresh cut bags and such?
Carter: As a company, we have taken the stand that Arctic apples will be labeled. They will have our Arctic logo on them, they will have the PLU code, and the first digit will be starting with nine, which indicates that it is genetically engineered. So our position is a bit contrary to the overall industry of biotech crops and the FDA, which is that labeling is not required. We want people to come to look for Arctic apples. It will be in the long term to our benefit. The FDA so far has not agreed with consumer groups that have advocated for labeling. When they finish with their review, they basically consider it to be like any other apple cultivar. They don’t want to single it out for labeling because there is no need for that. As a company, we think the consumer makes the decision. If the consumer wants it to be labeled, then we should listen to them, put the label on them and let the consumer make the decision.
Karst: Are you aware of any other people who are working on genetically engineered apples? Are you the only company that has been involved in this research?
Carter: There are other people doing other things. I was at a conference in New Zealand in March, and it was amazing to see all the things people are working on. These are largely government funded research institutions or universities. People who do the work and publish a paper type of thing. There is working being done for years at UC Davis, at Cornell and in New Zealand, Germany, France and Japan.
Karst: What do you think the market will be like for genetically engineered fruit like apples in 20 years? Will it be established by that point?
Carter: I’ve always hoped that would be the case, and I think it will be. Biotechnology is just another tool in the breeder’s toolbox. There is always going to be a place for conventional breeding and I think that over time there will be new varieties with novel traits that are biotech derived. The areas where I see this happening is where conventional breeders have difficulty, with thinks like fire blight resistance, scab resistance and changing the nutritional profile of the apple. To us, the Arctic apple is the first step in this process. We wanted to go first with a product where we knew the technology was simple and innocuous. We are just turning off one enzyme in an apple. It is still all apple; when you eat it, it is exactly the apple that you have enjoyed and loved, except it doesn’t go brown. We would like to go further than that down the road, perhaps an “Arctic plus,” with additional traits of disease resistance or pest resistance, these sorts of things. But we really believe that it has to be something in it for the consumer; otherwise the consumer is not going to support the product. That could mean a (biotech variety) would result in less chemical spraying, that it would be better for the environment, less expensive, a better antioxidant profile or making it so that it is a healthier more nutritious snack food.
Karst: So the Arctic apples may be within reach, only a few years away?
Carter: This could open the door for other specialty crops. The (biotech) papaya should have opened the door in 1995 for other specialty crops but it didn’t seem to happen. There are all sorts of good things we could be doing to make (food) more environmentally friendly, use less water, use less inputs in general and provide a healthier more nutritious food supply. Biotech plays a role in all of that. It would be nice to be able to use that tool in the specialty crops area of fruits and vegetables.
Karst: The organic community won’t be happy with the Arctic apple, since it is not a part of their structure.
Carter: Their current position (not to have GM crops be eligible for organic certification) is unfortunate. The Arctic apple could be grown organically, for example. That will become a greater challenge as GM crops increase that have a lower environment footprint because they are requiring fewer sprays. You start to ask yourself, is there a day when GM crops will be more environmentally sustainable than organic? In some crop areas, that’s not far off. It may even be there today. In the apple business, that is something that is going to happen.