It is one of the longer "chats" I have done, but it is worth the read, I think.
I had the chance to chat Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., Summerland, British Columbia.
Okanagan Specialty Fruits is seeking U.S. Department of Agriculture approval for domestic growing and marketing of Arctic, a genetically modified apple variety the company said does not brown when the apple is sliced.
11:11 a.m. Karst: Where are you now in the process of bringing the genetically engineered apple to the market?
11:12 a.m. Carter: We've got a lot to work to do. The Arctic apple - several events, or varieties of Arctic golden and Arctic granny are currently with USDA APHIS for deregulation. From there some small plantings will get started and it will get rolled out to the commercial arena three, four, five years from now. We had quite a bit of media attention this past month starting in early December but nothing is happening in the short term, it is all pretty long term.
11:13 a.m. Karst: Where did genetic modification occur with the Arctic apple?
11:51 a.m. Carter: Polyphenol Oxidase is from apples, so what we have done is turned off an apple gene which produces the protein called Polypheunol Oxidase. We haven’t introduced a gene from another plant species or from bacterium or anything else. This isn’t like a BT corn for example, where they isolated the Cry1 protein out of the BT bacteria. We basically turned off an apple gene. If people think we are going to see (new) proteins being produced in our apple. We’re not because we’re not producing any new proteins, we just turned one off. The technology comes from the Australian research organization called CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization). They have a series of patents covering the Polyphenol Oxidase gene. They identified it originally in a grape variety and from there they isolated that gene sequence in about 24 different plant species, including apples. They made the proof of concept work in potatoes and we then the licensed the technology for tree fruits and we have the exclusive worldwide rights to the technology for tree fruit.
We started in November 1996. We did three years of work to identify the behavior of PPO in apples. So we designed a means a way to interrupt protein synthesis.
We started planting the first trees in field trials in 2002 and we have had consistent results. We see no instabilities or variations from year to year with the trees. They look like apple trees, they grow like apple trees and they are consistent from year to year.
11:14 a.m. Karst: Who do you think will be most interested in your apple?
11:15 a.m. Carter: Definitely, we have gone out and done quite a bit of market assessment to identify where the most value is achieved for different people in the value chain and the foodservice industry would stand to have the biggest benefit. I think one of the really interesting things as I was meeting with one the large processor a couple of weeks ago, they deal with a lot of things like metabisulfites for dried fruit, for diced fruit, sliced fruit, cubed fruit and all sorts of things to make dehydrated apples and then shipping them off to where they are going to get rehydrated for pies. Everything there is treated with metabisulfites. Well our Arctic apples wouldn't need any metabisulfites on them. So right off the bat there is a savings for them and of course metabisulfites is a chemical that causes off flavoring and causes (allergic) reactions so it’s great to get that sort of thing out of the food handling and processing change. But also the fresh cut apple people would benefit enormously in the fact they could rid of calcium ascorbate
or the antioxidant of their choice is a pretty big thing. It is expensive, again it is a chemical that is added and getting rid of a chemical is always a good thing.
11:17 a.m. Karst: How big of inroads can you eventually make among fresh cut processors?
11:18 a.m. Carter: Because of the GM issue, we know that some people will continue to use calcium ascorbate, citric acid or a combination of the two in making their apple slices because they are wary of the perception in the market place, but I think there will be people who will try this. I think there are people (who realize) fresh cut apple slices haven't been terribly successful in retail. They have been pretty good in the institutional side of the business. (The lack of success at retail) is probably because they don't compete on a price point basis with other fresh cut produce like carrots and peppers. So if they could pull 15% or 20% or 25% out of their production costs by getting rid of the antioxidant, that would change the game quite a bit. I think there are people out there that are willing to try this and see how it goes. Of course, we won't have a whole lot of fruit for a long time, so it is not something that everybody is going to be able to try for a long time anyway.
11:20 a.m. Karst: What can you say about the approval process in the U.S. and Canada?
11:21 a.m. Carter: It is not just the USDA, FDA and Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada. Each country has its own group and there are numerous groups in each country. So it is quite an arduous process.
11:22 a.m. Karst: So about three years or so?
11:23 a.m. Carter: I'm not very good with that crystal all because so much of it plays out of our hands. It is in the hands of the regulatory people. I think sometime in 2012 will be realistic in the United States and maybe add a year to that in Canada. Canadian regulatory people seem to take a little longer. They don't have the depth of resources that the USDA and FDA have. So, yes, 2012 and 2013.
11:24 a.m. Karst: So there are Arctic apple trees in nurseries in the U.S now?
11:24 a.m. Carter: There are trees in field trails. You need to have sufficient field trials to build a data package to be able to submit a deregulation petition. If one was to try to visualize the amount of data collected from these apples, you could think of maybe 10 PhD. theses or something to that effect. So it is a pretty significant quantity of data that is being collected and analyzed that is being done, so the field trials have sufficient to build that body of data. Beyond that, no trees have gone out to commercial blocks.
11:26 a.m. Karst: So the field trials are in Canada and the U.S.?
11:27 a.m. Carter: They are predominantly in the U.S. If you go to the APHIS web site you can find the states where our field trials are located.
11:28 a.m. Karst: Do you have other apple varieties you are working on beside Arctic?
11:29 a.m. Carter: Arctic is the brand name that is associated with the inhibition of Polyphenol Oxidase and the control of enzymatic browning.
So we have our Arctic golden and granny leading the way in the current submission and then we are working and are testing building data packages for fuji, gala, mcIntosh and cripps pink.
We have worked on many other varieties as well but those are the ones leading the way.
11:31 a.m. Karst: How did you come to do the work you are now doing?
11:32 a.m. Carter: I'm a bioresource engineer. I have worked in over 50 countries around the world and worked particularly in harvest and postharvest handling and have seen the enormous losses that are prevalent in so many parts of the world in harvest and post harvest handling. We started at looking at ways to deal with of enzymatic browning and other things. Also, being involved personally – my wife and I have an orchard - we are very familiar with what cullage does to grower returns and packouts. We are interested at looking at the application of new technologies in this area. Another business we own is pretty well dedicated to innovations in agriculture, introducing new technologies in agriculture from an engineering perspective as well as software, electronics and robotics. This just seemed to be a natural fit. So we established Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. as sole purpose company that would be working on using molecular biology techniques to advance new varieties.
11:36 a.m. Karst: It seems like a lot of investment but you have had to wait quite a while to get any return. How do you manage that as a business?
11:37 a.m. Carter: We’re patient. I think agriculturists in general have to be patient people, particularly tree fruit growers. So we’re not people who look at the venture capital money and expect 100% return in three years. We’re looking down the road long term, developing sound science around an interesting realm of new products with a goal to achieve success in the market place.
11:39 a.m. Karst: What about the concern that consumers won’t be able to tell if something is poorer quality now (in regard to non browning apples)?
11:40 a.m. Carter: People seem to latch on to the non-browning part of it. What we have done is inhibited enzymatic browning in fruit and from a food science/technologist perspective; I think those people understand they are in a continuous battle against enzymatic browning. But what it doesn’t mean is that the fruit won’t brown. When it bruises, a bruise will be the first step in a cascade of reactions associated with fungal and bacterial decay. All of those are rich in a second enzyme that creates browning. So, all sorts of things that are driving secondary browning are still present in the apple. So you will get bruises and marks and stem punctures and all the current defects that exist in the apple industry that result in culls. There will still be culls. This technology is really more aimed at products that have a value added step to them. But it will certainly remove superficial scuff marks and finger bruising. But if you have a bruise it will still be a bruise and the current technology available in packing facilities will identify those bruises and kick them into the cull line.
11:42 a.m. Karst: What has been the reaction from the apple industry? When I say apple industry, I mean the associations and other groups? Have you heard from the U.S. apple industry?
11:43 a.m. Carter: I have been somewhat disappointed in the reaction of the apple industry. With that said some have been very favorable and others have been concerned about the consumer reaction and trying to distance themselves from the product that way. But my original comment about the disappointment is that they seem to be all very surprised yet I have been keeping them fairly well informed. I gave a presentation at the U.S. Apple Outlook Conference leadership luncheon in 2006 and 2007. They really knew this was coming. It is not something that has happened overnight. We have been working on it for 12 years, for goodness sakes.
The fact that they haven’t given it much thought, or haven’t really thought beyond the research and development level, is a bit frustrating. Not just for me, but for many researchers in the field – a lot of the USDA ARS folks, university people that have worked in genomics and biochromatics and molecular biology techniques for breeding and a whole host of things. They sort of wonder, if you are funding all this work, don’t you expect to see product with recombinant DNA?
11:46 a.m. Karst: What are other areas that biotechnology/genetically modified research could be beneficial to produce in general or apples in particular? What other applications do you think might be helpful?
11:46: a.m. Carter: We have a pipeline of products with additional traits or stacked traits and there is a whole host of exciting things there. At this point, we’re really just focused on the Arctic apple program, because if it isn’t successful, what is the point of working on other traits? I saw a large article in the Good Fruit Grower magazine about apples in China, the fact that the quantity is big but the quality is really lacking. It may be that the control of enzymatic browning in apples and the Arctic apples may be better suited to other markets, like the Chinese market. We’ll just have to see where we go with that. There has been lots of work – ethylene inhibition has been proof of concept achieved, scab resistance, powdery mildew resistance, changing metabolic profiling of apples. There is a host of traits where the target gene has been identified and proof of concept has been achieved.
11:49 a.m. Karst: How do you tell your story? How do you win the battle of public opinion?
11:49 a.m. Carter: I like to define our company as grower supported family sized company, so we don’t exactly have a large communications or public relations department. So we are a small company tackling a pretty big undertaking. We have a lot of people who want to succeed and are willing to help us with that and of course we are working with communication and public relation people to help. I think coming into 2011, I think probably one of our biggest undertaking is that as we move toward the public comment period for the Arctic apple submissions, we will have press releases and information packages we will put out in advance of that. The current media thing has caught us a little by surprise. It happened six or eight months prior to when we thought it would happen, so what we’re trying to do now is wait and let its turn its course and then go back to our original plan and try to regain our own proactive approach to how we will protect our message and value position. One of the things that we have been able to identify is that having people experience this apple is a huge part of our communications strategy. Once somebody has held an Arctic golden or granny in their hand and looked at it and say it looks like an apple and tastes like an apple, but the cool thing is that it doesn’t go brown. It is a pretty strong story and individual experience and I think you will see will be incorporating that quite a bit (in our message.)
11:50 a.m. Karst: One question people have is what would happen if these Arctic varieties are planted next to other commercial non-GMO varieties. What kind of reaction would non-GMO varieties have to this Arctic apple?
11:51 a.m. Carter: There are a few main points. One, the apples are bee-pollinated they are not pollinated by wind. So we put the bees in the orchard about every 50 feet; we have pollinizer trees in orchards about every 50 feet. So, the bees don’t travel great distances and nor does the pollen. If you had an Arctic golden row next to a normal golden row, you might see some cross pollination on that first row but beyond that you would see very little. The second thing is that the only place where you would have any of the Arctic apple transgenes – when I say the term transgene, that essentially means the portion of the DNA that reflects some change from its parent – and that is about 800 base pairs out of 770 million. We’re talking about a very infinitesimal, a small amount of DNA change. And the only place that (change) would manifest itself is in the seed. So a golden delicious apple next to an Arctic golden could potentially have some level of expression in the seed. We know apple trees are not seed derived; they are propagated from grafting. The seeds are in apples – small apples, cull fruit damaged fruit, whatever is left in the orchard and left hanging on the tree and it falls to the ground. We don’t get wild apple trees cropping up all over the orchard. In the commercial apple environment, the chance of weedy types and hybridization is essentially zero. Even if you think of people throwing apple cores out the window on the highway, you don’t’ see apple trees growing along side of roadway. So, you know, the risk is that a portion of the seed might have a very small amount of the transgene. That seed goes in the ground and it rots and decays and that’s the end of it. I think the regulatory people, anyway, have extremely little concern about pollen gene flow and outcrossing and hybridization when compared to that of wind pollinated seed crops like canola, flax, wheat and barley. So we essentially no risk to the conventional industry nor do we see any reason why biotech apples and the organic industry can’t coexist.
They currently coexist in millions of acres of soybeans, corn, canola, etc. planted in North America. In most cases, those field crops co-exist very well with their organic partners and such and those are highly mobile, seed derived crops. The apple industry can be pretty confident that this isn’t going to have any impact at all. If people come up with specific questions on pollen gene flow risk, in our petition we have addressed all those.
11:46 a.m. Karst: Any other messages to the industry about the non-browning apple?
11:50 a.m. Carter: I prefer people to use the term Arctic apple because the Arctic apple is a lot more than just a non-browning apple. I think maybe that is my comment. Control of enzymatic browning and the inhibition of Polyphenol Oxidase, and the fact that our apples have this make them unique. There may be other reasons that apples are slow-browning or low browning but it is no because they don’t have Polypheunol Oxidase. So basically what we are doing is we are making the (apples) so they don’t have the enzyme that drives all the bad things in the fruit as well as consumes in the fruit. When you inhibit Polyphenol Oxidase, you preserve Vitamin C, you preserve polyphenols, which are the flavor and the aroma and you control enzymatic browning, which is the non-browning you are referring to. Not only is it going to smell and taste better, be more nutritious, it is not going to have the off browning problems that others have. When people say that “Gee I don’t know, we already have non browning apples,” I would argue pretty strongly that we don’t. There is no other apple like this.