Research fights browning scourge
Different techniques highlight public resistance to biotech
By DAN WHEAT
YAKIMA, Wash. -- While a Canadian company is seeking U.S. approval of a genetically modified apple that won't brown when sliced, Washington State University apple breeders say they've bred a natural apple that does the same thing.
The unnamed apple was bred several years ago by Bruce Barritt, WSU apple breeder in Wenatchee, and was among several apples taste tested at the Dec. 6-8 Washington State Horticultural annual meeting in Yakima.
Barritt, now retired, and his successor, Kate Evans, said they haven't talked much about their nonbrowning apple because they're still testing its growing and production capabilities. Evans said they know it will not brown for one day, but not how much longer beyond that.
Evans, a molecular biologist, said there are several older commercial varieties that don't brown when sliced, but those varieties may not be suited for modern production systems.
Cornell University in New York is focusing on nonbrowning in its apple breeding program, Evans said. The WSU program is focused on crispness, flavor and appearance because those are Washington apple industry priorities, she said, adding she's willing to include nonbrowning if the industry wants.
Okanagan Specialty Fruits of Summerland, British Columbia, licensed technology that turns off the genes that cause browning from Australian researchers, who pioneered it in potatoes.The company is seeking USDA and FDA approval of its biotech apple, which it believes could boost sales of sliced and diced apples for salads and snacks.
Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, said the WSU apple probably is like other varieties that take longer to brown but still brown. He said his apple does not brown and maintains freshness.
Crunch Pak Marketing Director Tony Freytag said there are a lot of variables in determining interest in nonbrowning apples. Crunch Pak, of Cashmere, Wash., is the national leader in retail ready-to-eat sliced apples.
"Browning is a visual of the situation. There's much more going on with microbial issues," he said.
Much more needs to be known about the WSU and the Canadian apple, but "I'm not sure that printing GMO on a package right now is something we want to do," Freytag said.
Crunch Pak uses a rinse of calcium and vitamin C to prevent browning and maintain freshness.
So far, the Washington apple industry appears wary of biotech apples.
Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission in Wenatchee, noted genetic modification raises public concerns about health and doesn't seem to fit with the image of apples as healthful and nutritious. He said he's concerned about cross-pollination of genetically modified apple trees with conventional ones.
Evans said there's some evidence that silencing the browning gene reduces plant defenses against rot and infections.
Carter said just the opposite is true. In browning an enzyme consumes the good parts of the apple, he said.
Evans said her doctoral training was in genetic modification and that she believes it is safe.
"There are no health concerns if it is managed correctly," she said, noting the technology can be used many ways.
The WSU apple breeding program has not ruled out using genetic modification but is not doing so because it can produce what it wants with conventional breeding of varieties without having to worry about legislative approval and public opinion, she said.
Programs in New Zealand and The Netherlands use cisgenics, the practice of moving a gene from one apple variety to another, Evans said. The Canadian silencing of a gene should cause less concern, she said, because it's not adding anything to an apple, simply switching something off.