WENATCHEE, Wash. — The U.S. Apple Association, Northwest Horticultural Council, Washington State Horticultural Association and all apple trade organizations in Washington oppose USDA approval of GMO Arctic apples because they say a non-browning apple is not worth the fight or market risk, said Bruce Grim, executive director of the Horticultural Association and manager of the Washington Apple Growers Marketing Association.
“There’s no sound peer-reviewed science that says genetic engineering constitutes a human health hazard, but there’s non-peer reviewed stuff that casts doubts,” Grim said. “If USDA approved it, consumers will wonder which apple is GMO. It creates a level of confusion and fear that we don’t need to have.”
“We’re not opposed to GMOs but we are to this one,” said Alex Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission in Fresno.
“We need to sell apples and right now there’s a lot of questions with consumers about GMO,” Ott said. “This shouldn’t be a priority. The last thing the apple industry needs is controversy over eating healthy fruit. There could be a backlash if consumers don’t know what’s what. We don’t need confusion in the marketplace.”
Non-browning isn’t worth the risk, but combating pests and disease or reaching consistent crispness, firmness and quality might be, Ott said.
In November, the British Columbia Fruit Growers’ Association asked the Canadian government for an moratorium on genetically modified Arctic apples, citing potential market damage. The group asked Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., Summerland, B.C., in August 2012 to stop pursuing GMO apples.
“There are mixed feelings,” Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima, Wash., said. “There are growers who believe science should go forward and the industry should accept and applaud it. But when we are trying to market a product that is wholesome and a positive symbol of good health, we don’t like to have negative story lines in the media. All you have to do is (Google) search ‘Arctic apple’ and see how people are not enamored with this technology.”
Schlect noted a majority of the 72,745 comments the USDA received in 2012 during its first public comment period on Arctic apples were opposed. A second comment ends Dec. 16. Comments are to be on USDA’s environmental and plant risk assessments that concluded the apples are safe and pose no risks. Carter expects approval in late February.
Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, Fishers, N.Y., agreed approval is likely because science supports it. New York growers, who are second to Washington in apple production, also oppose Arctic apples, he said.
“I don’t think there is huge demand for non-browning and there’s means to prevent it without genetic modification,” Allen said. “So I don’t think benefits outweigh the risk and the risk is definitely market risk. We just don’t think consumers will accept it.
“The perception is very negative and there is real concern of having Dr. Oz (a television show on health) or Prevention Magazine saying these apples are going to kill us,” he said. “A lot of us feel this particular engineered apple isn’t worth stirring up the nest. If it had every vitamin you need or never had to be sprayed for pests, we might look at it differently.”
Allen said he’s also concerned non-browning means it will be harder to detect bruising. That would be bad for consumers buying fresh apples and at least one New York processor is concerned it could lead to bruised fruit ending up in slices for pie filling, he said.
Carter said only enzymatic browning is silenced, not browning from rot, so it will be easier for consumers and processors to judge quality. Bruised fruit will be just as easily identified by electronic sorting equipment that relies on reflectance rather than a true color reading, he said.
Allen said because USDA will probably approve the Arctic apples, the U.S. apple industry needs to prepare to change its strategy from opposition to GMO apples to defending non-GMO apples as safe.
“My fear is once it’s approved then everyone will categorize apples as being GMO and 99 percent of them won’t be,” he said.
Wendy Brannen, a U.S. Apple Association spokeswoman, said the association supports technology that improves the benefits of apples in a substantive way like quality, flavor, pest resistance and enhanced nutrition, Brannen said.
But U.S. Apple has not changed its position that the “non-browning attribute is insufficient to warrant possible disruption of the market,” she said.
“However, we’ve always tried to be clear we want consumers to have accurate data on research on GMO apples,” she said, “and that USDA has not found any evidence of ill effect of Arctic apples.”