Neal Carter wants to bring some interest and excitement to those big displays of apples in the local supermarket.
The Summerland, British Columbia, apple grower and agricultural engineer wants to introduce consumers to an apple that is different from anything they have seen before. While his company’s Arctic apples look the same on the outside, the difference is locked inside. The fruit has been genetically modified to inhibit browning of the flesh when the apple is cut or bitten into.
Carter is founder and president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which is seeking federal approval to market two of the modified varieties, Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny apples. The U.S. Department of Agriculture could make a decision by June.
Carter, 55, argues that a favorable ruling would do for apples what baby carrots did — bring some sorely needed buzz to a tired segment of the market. Baby carrot sales doubled in 1990. Apple per capita consumption has gradually declined to less than 16 pounds per year from a high of more than 21 pounds about two decades ago, according to the USDA.
“Apples come in the perfect package. But as a snack food, they are too much to handle at one time. People want to cut the apple and eat it bit by bit,” said Carter in a telephone interview. “If we could make an apple that wouldn’t go brown ... that would be huge to have people consume more apples.”
The apple industry is not so sure.
In fact, industry groups submitted testimony opposing the application to deregulate the genetically modified apple. Industry heavyweights are raising the concern: the U.S. Apple Association, the Washington State Horticultural Association, the Washington Apple Commission and the Northwest Horticultural Council.
Opponents say eliminating browning isn’t a sufficiently significant advance to offset the uncertainty the first genetically modified apple would cause among consumers, said Chris Schlect of Yakima, horticultural association president.
Schlect said tremendous controversy continues to swirl around genetic engineering of food.
“There are a lot of advocacy groups that don’t like the idea of genetically modified ag products. You have a lot of consumers who don’t like this idea,” Schlect said. “In the marketing sphere, it creates headaches. We took a position we would just as soon not see it.”
The possible release of Arctic apples on what initially would be a limited basis over the next several years has taken on increased significance with the growing debate in Washington state and elsewhere in the country over genetically modified organisms in the food supply. The World Health Organization defines genetically modified foods as those in which genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.
The debate has given rise to Initiative 522, which seeks to require any food subjected to genetic engineering be labeled as such. Washington voters likely will have their say on the issue this fall.
Initiative backers, known by the distinctive campaign name of Label It Wa, argue that consumers have a right to know what is in their food. They say the initiative would protect foreign markets for Washington state products like apples. Many countries already require labeling.
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s office has certified the initiative to the Legislature. Lawmakers have three options. They can pass it and make it law; they can take no action and the measure will be on the November ballot; or they can come up with their own alternative and the two will appear on the ballot.
The fruit industry also opposes the labeling initiative and similar efforts in as many as 30 states. While no genetically modified apples are in circulation at the moment, the industry is concerned about trying to comply with what could be different labeling requirements in different states.
Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association in Yakima, said state labeling requirements pose costly barriers to interstate commerce.
“It would be prohibitively expensive and wasteful to force fruit packers and shippers to have 50 different boxes to meet specific labeling requirements of customers in different states,” he said. “Food safety and labeling are already regulated at the federal level and any proposed changes should be addressed there as well.”
Initiative supporters argue the labeling effort in the 30 states is coordinated and will be identical. That’s hard to guarantee, however, because 30 different legislatures aren’t required to act in unison.
The industry has done more than just express concern in the case of the Arctic apples. The Washington fruit industry has created a subcommittee to develop industry positions as issues surrounding the new apple surface. Among the concerns is the potential impact on organically grown apples, which could lose organic certification should the nonbrowning gene become established in those blocks.
Carter calls that possibility highly unlikely.
He also said he is disappointed with the industry’s overall reaction to Arctic apples. He said the industry talks about ways to drive consumption higher to benefit growers and the industry as a whole but then criticizes efforts at innovation such as his.
“We are apple growers. We aren’t trying to disrupt the market. We are trying to introduce new products that stimulate excitement,” he said.
Carter’s firm, which has been conducting research since 1997, isn’t stopping with apples. The firm also is working on cherries, peaches and pears and is looking to expand into disease resistance through genetic modification.
The initial goal, however, is to bring nonbrowning apples to market.
Browning occurs when the flesh of an apple is cut, releasing a plant enzyme that mixes with plant proteins that serve a variety of purposes, including aroma and flavor. The Arctic apple contains a synthetic gene that inhibits the production of the enzyme and stops the browning.
Should the Arctic apple achieve federal approval — a step the apple industry concedes is likely — consumers shouldn’t expect to see the fruit on display until 2015 at the earliest.
Further introduction of the fruit would be gradual. Trees that produce the modified apple are being grown in a test orchard at an undisclosed location in Washington state. A similar orchard also exists in Michigan.
Carter said a significant number of trees would first have to be produced and made available to growers.
“We would make it available to a certain number of growers so that they can do test blocks in their orchards. It is their opportunity to kick the tires and try it out for themselves,” he said.
He expects no more than 10 to 20 growers in North America would plant a total of about 100 acres.
“This gives us enough fruit to do some test marketing and show it around,” he said.
The apples would carry stickers with the Arctic logo and would have point-of-sale materials notifying consumers that the apples are the result of genetic modification.
For his part, Carter agrees with the fruit industry that the labeling initiative is not going to provide consumers the kind of information they need. He calls the labeling movement a scare tactic to drive consumers to organic food.
“There’s a pretty substantial body of consumer research that doesn’t indicate consumers are demanding this,” Carter said.
• David Lester can be reached at 509-577-7674 or firstname.lastname@example.org.