Could a genetically modified apple designed not to go brown after slicing be the apple industry's panacea?
Neil Carter, an Okanagan apple grower who runs a small biotechnology company seeking U.S. approval of the specialty apple, says his innovation could boost apples into the top ranks of the snack-food stratosphere and open a much-needed lifeline for North American growers if regulators approve the technology.
"If more people don't consume, growers aren't going to survive," said Mr. Carter, the president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, based in Summerland, B.C. "If we could just get everybody to eat one more pound of apples per year that would translate into a big benefit to the apple industry," he said.
The real question is whether consumers will see enough benefit to bite into apples bred for their anti-browning traits with no additional nutritional bonus.
While the biotech industry has had significant success in agriculture, it has historically been the result of targeting farmers with innovations that offer savings, ease, environmental benefits, or a combination of those. Innovations that benefit other parts of the value chain - such as the tomatoes engineered to ripen more slowly that became the first GM crop approved in the U.S. in 1992 - have also been successful.
Mr. Carter's apple, called the Arctic, is one of the first products to land in the regulatory queue that has been modified to benefit consumers. There's no precedent to indicate whether the anti-browning feature is likely to add up to enough benefit to outweigh consumers' reservations about genetically modified foods, said David Sparling, a professor of agri-food innovation and regulation at the Richard Ivey School of Business.
"We're starting to see the first products coming out that have consumer benefits, but we're not quite at really significant consumer benefits," he said. "One thing holding biotech back is there hasn't been that big winner for consumers."
Mr. Carter, whose company is comprised of five people, has been chipping at that goal for more than a decade.
In 1998, the company licensed technology from government-funded researchers in Australia who figured out how to shut off the gene responsible for inducing browning in raw, cut potatoes. Buoyed by the market resurgence enjoyed by pre-washed baby carrots, Mr. Carter adapted the technology to function in apples, hoping it would give growers a premium product that fetched higher margins.
Over the decade it has taken for Mr. Carter to get the Arctic apple into a promising position with regulators, apples have seen somewhat of a resurgence - cut and packaged, they are becoming popular snack foods with children, air travellers and health-conscious patrons of McDonald's restaurants. To keep them from going brown, packers mist the sliced apples with an anti-oxidant spray.
Mr. Carter said using his GM variety, which is "one of the safest apples in the world," would cut the costs of that process.
And while his application for approval pertains to Delicious and McIntosh varieties, the technology could work in any apple, he said.
Among squeezed apple growers in Ontario, where 45 per cent of Canada's apples are produced, there is definite curiosity.
"We're in serious trouble," said Brian Gilroy, head of the Ontario Apple Growers' association. Growers have never planted GM apples, but "we're trying to find varieties that will return profit to growers," Mr. Gilroy said.
A determinate of the GM apple's success will be the cost compared to non-modified varieties, some of which have been conventionally bred for their innate anti-browning traits.
Jim Brandle, CEO of the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, said Mr. Carter's technology could be a tough sell when anti-browning is "available virtually for free" in Eden-brand apples. "What they need is perhaps a more compelling trait other than apple-browning," he said. "Maybe it has to be more nutritious and healthy," he said, adding: "If you could make bacon that wasn't bad for your heart, that'd be something."
If the Arctic apple gets the green light in the United States, Mr. Carter said trees could be in the ground as early as 2012. An application for Canadian approvals is also in the works.