There is perhaps no more iconic food than the apple. Think about it; from the Garden of Eden to the logo on the smart phone you might be holding in your hand right now, the apple claims a special place in the arc of modern civilization. It's both a forbidden fruit and the main ingredient in our all-American dessert. We cried when Snow White ate the poisoned version but eating one a day can keep the doctor away. It's the name of a body part and the nickname of America's biggest city. Heck, Gwyneth even named her daughter Apple.
So, could an apple now symbolize a major turning point in the public's acceptance of GMOs (genetically modified organisms)? We hope so.
The recently USDA-approved Arctic apple isn't trying to change the world. It's not trying to save eyesight or reduce pesticides like other GMOs. It just wants to be less...yucky.
We all know that when you slice an apple and let it sit for a few minutes, it starts to turn brown. It isn't rotting and tastes fine but it starts to look less appetizing after a short time. The browning is the harmless result of an enzyme meeting oxygen. No big deal. But tell that to the people who are unfamiliar with the concept of "check your privilege" such as American kids who are notoriously picky eaters or those adults who toss food the moment it looks a little faded.
Now imagine being able to shut down the internal process that causes the unappetizing change. It doesn't affect the taste, texture, or nutritional value of the apple. It simply turns off the enzyme and...ta-da...no browning! Silencing that enzyme is exactly what the company who makes the Arctic apple did. With that one little tweak, the company created non-browning varieties of apples that may be more appealing to consumers as well as restaurants and organizations that resist serving apples because of the waste potential.
Here's how it works: The browning process is switched off by "silencing" the genes that produce the enzyme, which is polyphenol oxidase or PPO. This is done by simply using extra copies of those same genes, which stops the expression of the original gene (kind of like a genetic blanket). By using apple genes to silence apple genes, the genes that produce PPO are cancelled out with these extra copies. That bears repeating. Unlike the scary visuals the anti-GMO folks like to show - like big syringes filled with God-knows-what being injected into food - no new proteins are being introduced to the apple. It's like flipping an internal switch; nothing scary about that.
The company that created the Arctic apple, Okanagan Specialty Fruit, is located in Canada. It took 18 long years of research, development and testing before the product won U.S. government approval this year. The company is now growing two Arctic apple varieties - the Arctic Golden and the Arctic Granny - which should be available to consumers in a few years.
And no, this isn't funded by Monsanto in a secret plot to control the population with FrankenFruit. "We had been primarily reliant on a group of around 45 private shareholders," said company president Neal Carter. "Many of these individuals were from the agricultural industry themselves, but we have not received funding from other biotech companies. And, while we now have Intrexon as a parent company, we remain grower-led and still have less than 10 full-time employees."
There are many benefits of this new fruit. More kids will eat this nutrition-packed and satiating food. One of us watched kids throw perfectly edible, whole apples in the garbage at school lunch because, as the principal explained, they were not sliced for quick eating. Arctic apples can be sliced hours in advance of school breakfast and lunch without fear of waste.
But appeal at the consumer level is only one consideration. From farmers to packers and retailers, everyone across the food supply chain will profit from less spoilage and waste.
The company is also working on how to adapt this technique for peaches, cherries, and pears, which is great news. Like all moms with picky eaters, we hate wasting money on food. It would be nice to avoid that suspicious scowl a 3-year-old gives you when you try to explain that a bruised pear will still taste good.
What if this process can be applied in the future to other costly, highly-perishable foods like avocados? "It certainly has that potential," Carter said. "PPO is responsible for enzymatic browning in many fruits and vegetables. In fact, the PPO-silencing technology has roots in research done on grapes and potatoes before we perfected it and applied it to apples."
Of course, the anti-GMO activists are in a lather trying to portray the Arctic apple as the poison apple ("one bad apple really can spoil the whole barrel, especially if it's been genetically engineered. And soon Snow White may not be the only one with reason to be concerned about apples," warns Friends of the Earth.) Other so-called "advocacy" groups like the Center for Food Safety and Organic Consumers Association lamented the government's approval of the Arctic apple and demanded that companies like McDonald's, Wendy's, and Gerber refuse to use the product. While those companies have vaguely stated they have no current plans to use the apples, they have time to reach a logical decision. "It would be at least a few more years before a large enough supply of Arctic® apples would be available to satisfy the requirements of a major restaurant chain," Carter said.
We know a little apple probably won't change the world but maybe there's hope that a small bite of this GMO-apple will help wary consumers get past their fears about genetic engineering
And maybe if they're willing to give it a chance, they'll begin to understand the potential of this technology. After all, no matter how much anyone tries, it's hard to find something scary about apple genes inside an apple.
In the meantime, count us as two moms excited about this new fruit and other innovations that lie ahead. Hey, how about something to make sleep-deprived moms look fresh for longer?