An apple fell and Newton discovered gravity. But little did Newton imagine that future scientists would rearrange the gene structure of nature’s apples to prohibit browning.
Market trends indicate that consumers spend nearly half of their food dollars on food prepared and consumed away from home, while apples rank as the second most consumed fruit in the U.S.
The need for non-browning apples comes from the food service sector and those desiring pre-sliced fruit. Market research indicates that kids like pre-sliced apples, winning votes from uninformed parents for school lunch boxes and camping trips. The downside is that pre-sliced apples are a frequently recalled food product and present food safety issues. If the apples do not brown (a natural sign of oxidation) consumers would not have the obvious gauge as to whether the fruit is fresh or not. According to Canada’s Okanagen Specialty Fruits (OSF), the main challenge for apple food service applications is browning. The developers claim that non-browning apples will give increased versatility to food service chefs and offer greater eye appeal. Although OSF estimates that non-browning apples may facilitate a 40 percent cost and labor savings, food-contamination issues are a very real concern.
Do we really need apples that don’t turn brown? Why was the Arctic Apple created? Why did the USDA approve it despite widespread opposition from The British Columbia Fruit Growers’ Association, The Northwest Horticultural Council and anti-biotechnology groups in the U.S. and Canada?
The success of the fruit led to a multi-million dollar deal between OSF and an American synthetic biology company. Despite opposition from surveyed growers and consumers, OSF president Neal Carter announced his intention to plant as many Arctic trees in the U.S. as possible and to use biotechnology to “improve” other varieties of apples, peaches, pears, and cherries to resist browning, make them scab and fire-blight resistant, and address dwarfing. The apples are due to hit the shelves in Canada and the U.S. in 2016.
Gene silenced fruits suggest new health concerns for school children, hospitalized patients, the elderly in care homes, as well as cafeteria consumers nationwide. Many well-known food chains, restaurants and bakeries who seem to support non-GMO have been slow to clean up their ingredients lists and verify that widely consumed confections are indeed pure safe food.
Reports from the U.S. Apple Association suggest that the USDA has approved a GM apple that “farmers don’t want to grow, food companies don’t want to sell and consumers don’t want to eat.” The British Columbia Fruit Growers’ Association (BCFGA), representing 520 commercial fruit growers in western Canada, strongly opposed the approval of the Arctic Apple from the onset, expressing concern that deregulation could affect and contaminate all varieties of apples. Fred Steele, BCFGA president commented, “Our members would like the apple market to remain free of GM apples. We regret that the United States is approving the Arctic Granny Smith and Arctic Golden Delicious.”
According to OSF, the Arctic Apple has been more than 15 years in the making. Early last year U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), under the umbrella of the Animal and Plant Healthy Inspection Service (APHIS), approved and introduced two varieties of the non-browning GE apples, the Arctic Granny Smith and the Arctic Golden. The standard regulations, in accord with the Plant Protection Act (PPA), evaluated whether the GE apple varieties are a “plant pest risk” to agricultural crops, other plants or plant products. The Act defines “plant pests” as organisms such as bacteria, fungi or insects that are known to harm agricultural crops, plants and plant products. If APHIS finds through its standard scientific review that any new GE plant is unlikely to pose a “plant pest risk” then under the law it is required to deregulate the plant.
For the Center for Food Safety (CFS), the deregulation is careless since the genetic changes may negatively impact both human health and the environment. Explaining the process and dangers, CFS reported that OSF, “has failed to analyze whether suppressing fruit browning with these novel RNAs (ribonucleic acid or RNA carries genetic information) impacts the rest of the gene family in the tree or whether there are off-target impacts on other genes,” suggesting that the USDA should hold off on deregulating RNAi (RNA interference)-engineered crops until they have thoroughly investigated the latest research in this area. Scientists at CFS commented on the hazards emphasizing that the new techniques are based on the manipulation of RNA molecules in order to dial back the expression of or silence genes, a technique which is unlike earlier cut-and-splice techniques used by biotechnology. Specifically, the Arctic Apple has been engineered to reduce polyphenol oxidase (PPO) enzymes responsible for browning in apple flesh after bruising. However, these enzymes are also found throughout the tree, where impacts of the engineering have not been determined. A further hazard is the possibility that interference which targets one gene may unpredictably turn off, turn down or silence unrelated genes. In other plants, PPO genes are known to improve pest and stress resistance. As a result, non-browning apple trees might be more vulnerable to disease and require more pesticides than conventional apples. CFS further emphasized that “Okanagan did not analyze PPO gene functions in apples other than browning, nor did they determine whether the Arctic or other gene-silenced crops would unintentionally silenced genes outside the PPO family.”
However, in response to recent industry outreach and more than 250,000 consumer signatures, three major food companies have confirmed that they have no plans to offer gene-silenced fruit. This includes Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Gerber baby foods.
Why do apples turn brown? Isn’t it possible that the gene sequence which prevents browning is something essential to the full nutritional benefit of the apple, rather than being something harmful?
The apple turns brown when exposed to air because of an interaction between polyphenol oxidase enzymes and phenolics in apples. Simply put, apples turn brown because of a specific enzyme (polyphenol oxidase) in the fruit’s cells that react with oxygen when those cells are ruptured by cutting or biting the apple. Known as “enzymatic browning,” the chemical reaction can be defined as follows. Polyphenol Oxidase + O2 -> Melanin (brown color). Oxygen activates the compound polyphenol oxidase in the fruit and the fruit turns brown.
Polyphenol oxidase is an important antioxidant which prevents damage to DNA caused by free radicals. If PPO is silenced, the antioxidant value of the apples may be diminished. A study published in the Journal of Food Chemistry found that non-digestible compounds in apples can help fight obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Granny Smith’s were cited as ranking highest in weight-loss compounds. The study also found that Granny Smith apples promote the growth of good bacteria due to their high content of non-digestible compounds including dietary fiber and polyphenols.
The health benefits of apples and polyphenols include good dental health, improved bone density, increased resistance to skin cancer and intestinal disorders, increased energy levels and endurance, support for neurological diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease, as well as increased overall immunity. Apples are a top choice for detox and cleansing purposes. Reducing melanin production in the human body is an additional health concern.
What if eating the Arctic Apple not only turned off the browning enzyme in the apples but also turned off essential human gene functions? How will scientists know before it is too late?
These hard-to-answer questions clearly point to the risks of consuming genetically modified foods. The fact is that the far-reaching results are not known and may not be known until it is too late to undo the damage. The Center for Food Safety has warned consumers that “the little understood gene-silencing technology will now be unlabeled in common consumer products using a relatively new form of genetic engineering called RNA interference or gene silencing … For the USDA to turn a blind eye to these risks for such an inessential technological ‘advance’ is foolish and potentially costly.” Introduction of the Arctic Apple raises numerous concerns from consumer groups and environmentalists, as well as the apple industry. As with other GE products, mandatory labeling is not currently required and the unlabeled GE apples may find their way into foods, supplements, personal care products and cosmetics.
The immediate introduction of new governmental legislation and regulations may be required to avoid GMO contamination and stop the widespread introduction of the Arctic Apple and gene-silenced crops in agricultural settings. Strict legislation which prohibits GMOs at all stages of production may also be prudent.
Now is the time for those individuals most responsible for the advancement of science to begin to act in tune with the laws of nature rather than tampering with nature irrespective of the consequences. Humankind must at all costs avoid technologies which bring degradation to human life and the environment if we wish to create a sustainable world for all future generations to come.