The US government approved a genetically modified apple that doesn’t turn brown when bruised or sliced. While most genetic alterations of plants involve making these more resilient to pests or yield more, the non-browning apples were made out of cosmetic considerations. Of course, the apples will still  rot and eventually get brown, but in time and not so easily when stressed (cell rupture). But despite the government approval, voices run rampant against the genetically modified fruit from behalf of anti-GMO groups, as well as rivaling food companies.

These apples keep their colour


Left, a normal sliced apple left to oxidize; right, genetically modified Arctic apples. Image: Okanagan Specialty Fruits

Okanagan Specialty Fruits, a rather small Canadian company, is behind the new product. An oddity in itself considering the GM space is dominated by giants like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. Their intention is to address both consumer and food companies who might benefit from apples that don’t turn brown, which hardly sell in super markets. During harvest and shipping, tons and tons of apples get bruised, turn brown and end up in the gutter. As reported earlier, so-called ugly fruit and veggies get thrown away at a massive scale just because they don’t appeal to the market’s aesthetic standards – between 20 and 40 percent of all fresh food is thus thrown away by farmers. Companies that process apples, like sliced apples, may also greatly benefit. It’s believed that 30% of the cost for sliced apples goes into tainting these with anti-oxidants so they don’t go brown, so consumers will get to buy these 30% cheaper.

When you cut an apple in half – or a banana or potato for that matter – you’ll notice it starts getting brown within a couple of minutes. This is caused by the reaction between an enzyme found in the apples, as well as in other foods, called  polyphenol oxidase or tyrosinase with oxygen and  iron-containing phenols. The fruit starts to oxidize, when electrons are lost to another molecule (in this case the air), and the food turns brown. Basically, an edible rusty crust is formed on your food. You see the browning when the fruit is cut or bruised because these actions damage the cells in the fruit, allowing oxygen in the air to react with the enzyme and other chemicals. To keep your sliced apples as fresh as possible, you need to reduce the amount of oxygen that gets to react with the tyrosinase. Putting the apples under water or vacuum packing are just a few effective ways to do this, but you can also try adding lemon juice (acidic) to reduce the pH of the exposed surface. Or, you can buy Okanagan’s apples and be done with it.

To fix the oxidation problem, the Okanagan researchers engineered their apples – called Arctic apples – so these make less of the polyphenol oxidase. What’s interesting though is that rather than snipping out the genetic code responsible for producing the enzyme, the researchers actually added more copies of the enzyme’s gene, causing the fruit to switch off the whole lot.

Neal Carter, the president of Okanagan, said the apple had “a lot of silent supporters” and would be popular with the food service business.

“I can’t believe how many requests we’ve had just this morning to our website from people who want to buy trees,” he said.

Already, one grower is allegedly planting  20,000 trees this spring, which should yield 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of apples by the fall of 2016, that’s if nothing happens in the meantime. A lot of people are critical of the Arctic apples, which come in two varieties, Granny Smith and Golden Delicious.

“This G.M.O. apple is simply unnecessary,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a statement, using the initials for “genetically modified organism.” “Apple browning is a small cosmetic issue that consumers and the industry have dealt with successfully for generations.”

Carter argues, however, that his apples aren’t technically genetically modified organisms, not in the traditional sense at least. In the lab, plants are typically altered by adding a gene from some foreign organism, but Carter’s apples were made by internal tweaking of its genes – there’s nothing “alien” inside. But consumer groups say shutting off the browning mechanism could have unintended effects. The Agriculture Department, however, said the Arctic apples seemed to be nutritionally equivalent to other apples. In November, the Agriculture Department approved a genetically engineered potato developed by the J.R. Simplot Company that uses a similar technique to prevent browning.


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