Some weeks ago I had asked Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., for his response to the apple industry's statements about his company's genetically engineered Arctic non-browning apple currently under review by the USDA. We weren't able to talk in person, but he emailed me some responses to my questions, which I am somewhat tardy in posting here.
First of all, for context, is March coverage from The Packer's Coral Beach about the U.S. Apple and Northwest Horticultural Council positions:
Apple group opposes Canada's genetically engineered apples
By Coral Beach
Joining the Northwest Horticulture Council in opposing genetically engineered, non-browning apples from Canada, the board of the U.S. Apple Association voted unanimously at its March 12 meeting to ask the USDA to not allow the fruit into the U.S.
Nancy Foster, president of the association based in Vienna, Va., said the vote to oppose an application for non-regulated status from British Columbia’s Okanagan Specialty Fruits came after review of presentations from Okanagan’s president Neal Carter. Okanagan is seeking approval of its non-browning apples.
Neither the U.S. Apple Association nor the Northwest Horticulture Council contends that Okanagan’s apples pose a threat to human health. Rather, the U.S. organizations’ members are concerned that allowing non-regulated status for the non-browning apples could harm marketing efforts and sales for the U.S. apple industry.
Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticulture Council in Yakima, Wash., sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Feb. 28 expressing the council’s opposition to the Okanagan application. The council explains its stance in the March edition of its newsletter on its website at www.nwhort.org/newsletter.html.
“This policy decision was made by our trustees after a careful balance, taking into account potential customer concerns, of benefits and risks to the existing commercial apple industry of the Pacific Northwest,” the newsletter states. “In the end, the projected benefits of the non-browning apples did not outweigh the marketing harm likely to occur to apple growers and marketers, whether traditional or organic.”
TK: There, then, is the context. Below are my questions and Carter's answers from April.
Karst: What was your reaction to the statements of the Northwest Horticultural Council and U.S. Apple Association about your Arctic apple?
Carter: As a policy, we aren’t going to comment on others’ positions.
I will say this: I’m an apple grower myself, so I know our industry needs all the help we can get to increase apple consumption. Fresh apple consumption has been declining in recent years, at the same time that consumption of other fruits and vegetables have been increasing overall. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a really innovative product that got consumers’ attention and boosted growers’ bottom lines.
A truly non-browning apple has great market potential, for slices and other fresh cut, juice processing and on the fresh market alike. There hasn’t been much dialogue in our industry about the cost of browning, but when you add it up across the supply chain, it’s really quite dramatic, from the field, the packinghouse and the processing plant to the store display shelf, restaurant and home. We know we face challenges, and we’re working hard to be thoughtful and considerate about how we go about our business -- but we’ve also heard positive things from consumers who participated in our focus groups and had a chance to learn more about Arctic Apples and see them for themselves.
Beyond Arctic Apples, biotechnology holds tremendous promise in helping to solve industry challenges, including pest threats. Our message: Give biotechnology, and Arctic Apples a chance. Let the supply chain and marketplace decide for themselves, on the merits of the product.
Karst: Do you feel those statements by the U.S. Apple Association and Northwest Horticultural Council will “carry any weight” with the USDA?
Carter: USDA APHIS evaluates and prepares assessments of plant pest risk and environmental impact.. There will be a 60 day public comment period and this is when APHIS is expecting letters from industry and consumers Letters to APHIS that have scientific merit will be given due diligence. It would be our understanding that letters such as that by the NW Hort Council was premature.
We’re confident that we can provide evidence that Arctic Apples are safe and are equivalent or better than regular apples. This science is relatively straightforward. Recognizing that genetic engineering is a complex technology this is about as simple as it gets. These plants will perform identically to anything else in your orchard – the difference is in the non-browning flesh, and the market doors it can open.
Karst: How long do you think it will be before the USDA will act on your request?
Carter: That’s really up to the agency, and we don’t want to presuppose. There will be a public comment period, sometime after which they will issue their final decision. Since the submission of our petition in May 2010 we have worked hard to respond to all of their questions and we have been very impressed with their understanding of the tree fruit industry.
Karst: Are you pursuing introduction of the variety in any other countries beyond the U.S. and Canada?
Carter: The U.S. and Canadian markets are our first focus. We will submit documents to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Health Canada for the deregulation of Arctic Apple in Canada by the end of the next quarter.
Karst: Any other thoughts about where your company is at now and where you want to take it?
Carter: Arctic Apple is the first product in what we hope is going to be a long pipeline of GM-engineered solutions to industry problems. As I’ve mentioned while giving presentations at various industry gatherings over the last couple of years, we also are working on resistance to scab and Fireblight, both major industry pest protection issues. We have several other exciting projects in the pipeline, it’s really amazing what you can do with all of today’s scientific tools behind you.
TK: The apple industry's opposition to the non-browning apple may create complications when the industry is later convinced it needs biotechnology to overcome the challenges of a pest or disease. If there is one mantra the produce industry espouses, it is "let the market decide." The market yet decide the fate of the Arctic apple, after USDA scientists have their say.