The USDA has deregulated two genetically modified apple varieties from British Columbia for propagation and sales in the United States.
But the company that developed the varieties, Okanagan Specialty Fruits of Summerland, B.C., may have a hard time finding growers interested in growing the apples in the U.S. because of public concern and opposition to genetically modified foods.
“We’re super excited. It’s been 57 months and waiting, so it’s very good news for us,” Neil Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, told Capital Press.
The company’s Arctic-brand Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples have been engineered to silence a gene that causes browning when sliced. The company is working on other varieties.
Carter believes non-browning and GM apples with other attributes could increase apple consumption and returns to growers. He says biotechnology is needed to help agriculture meet an ever-expanding global food demand.
While supportive of the science, the Washington apple industry has opposed deregulation of the GM apples because it believes it could damage apple sales.
Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima, said that’s still the case. He noted planting orchards is expensive and that growers will be unlikely to invest time and money into varieties that are controversial and risky.
Two years ago, John Rice, co-owner of Rice Fruit Co. in Gardners, Pa., the largest apple packer on the East Coast, said he wanted to plant the GM apples. Ten years earlier, he lost peach orchards to a virus that potentially could have been saved by GM rootstock had it existed.
But now Rice no longer wants to plant GM apples.
“My position has evolved, driven by what seems to be an increasingly militant point of view adopted by consumer groups and the national media that seems to make GM foods seem like part of an evil conspiracy to make people unhealthy by selling foods more profitable to the grower,” Rice said. “That was never my idea. I’ve always looked at it as the same as breeding to improve apples for the consumer by making them more flavorful or crisp or nutritious or requiring less pesticides.”
Rice expressed admiration for Carter but said he thinks Carter will have a hard time finding people in the U.S. willing to plant Arctic apples. He said the processing cooperative he uses — for apples for juicing, sauce and pie filling — have already said it won’t use any GM apples. He said he doubts food service distributors will want to go there either.
Carter said he sees the food service industry as a greater market for his non-browning apples than the fresh market. Arctic apples could lessen costs and boost sales of the sliced-apple snack business, he has said. But a leader in that business, Crunch Pak of Cashmere, Wash., has said it has no intention of using them.
In deregulating Arctic apples, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said it found the apples are unlikely to pose a risk to plants or the human environment.
Carter said consumers can be confident in rigorous review of the apples and that the USDA found them just as safe and healthy as any other apple.
“All we’ve done is reduce the expression of a single enzyme. There are no novel proteins in Arctic fruit and its nutrition and composition is equivalent to conventional counterparts,” he said.
Carter said about 20,000 Arctic apple trees will be planted this spring. He would not say where, and he would not say if he has interest from growers in Washington, Michigan or New York, the three largest apple-growing states.
Last May, he said half-a-dozen growers in as many states, including Washington and Michigan, were interested in planting. He said there have been field trials in Washington by a grower and Okanagan Specialty Fruits.
He said he will do budding this spring to build trees for 2016 delivery but that more will be bud in August 2015 for commercial availability in the spring of 2017. Nurseries in Canada and the U.S., including Washington, will be involved in that, he said.
He said he expects deregulation in Canada in a month or two.