Genetically Modified “Lite” – the case of the Arctic apple

By: Matt McIntosh 

Neal Carter picking an Arctic apple.

Arctic apples, the (relatively) new varieties of apples that resists browning when cut, are considered genetically modified organisms, or GMOs for short.

According to one of its main creators, there’s a lot to be excited about in the new type of fruit.

Neal Carter is president and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., the British-Columbia based company behind the Arctic apple. Why Carter and his team – including his wife Louisa – created the Arctic apple has to do primarily with taste and longevity, or food waste more specifically. Food waste is a big issue, he says, and creating a product that stays crisper and tastes better for longer would be beneficial to the consumer. That goes for apples on the grocery shelf as well as those sliced and packed for more on-the-go type consumption.

The apple was developed by switching off genes already present in the fruit rather than introducing new genes altogether to introduce a novel trait, which is the case in many GMO crops. “Essentially we are using apple genes to change other apple genes,” says Carter.

Conventional vs Arctic - rz

Apple browning in a conventional (left) versus Arctic apple.

“After you cut an apple it releases an enzyme called ‘polyphenol oxidase;’ that starts a chemical reaction that turns the apple brown. All we did was reduce the amount of enzymes present in the apple. It’s like diet biotech, or biotech lite.”

There’s a nutritional element to Carter’s thinking too. Making cut apples more palatable and eye pleasing for longer periods of time, he suggests, might even help increase the crop’s standing as a go-to snack for today’s busy, modern consumers. Indeed, gaining a foothold in the “pre-cut” apple market is something Carter and his team are very focused on.

Despite the intended benefits and toned-down nature of the apple’s creation story, though, not everyone shares Carter’s passion for the novel fruit. Anti-GMO groups have still done their fair share of vocalizing and criticizing.

Despite criticisms, however, Carter says he and the team have received “far more” positive responses than negative ones. This is particularly true as their product – which has been in the public eye since 2008 – continues to develop. Carter attributes part of that positivity to his company’s efforts at education and transparency, which along with thousands of articles and interviews to date, includes an extensive website specific to the Arctic apple (www.arcticapples.com). Okanagan Specialty Fruits also maintains a strong social media presence.

“We try to remain active without focusing on the debate,” Carter says. “The apple has been reviewed and approved by four regulatory agencies in multiple countries. We are continually working with retailers, dietitians, physicians and others to get our product out there, and show it’s useful and tasty as well as safe.”

Future plans for the Arctic apple brand include an expansion of apple varieties. Arctic Granny (derived from Granny Smith) and Arctic Golden (derived from Golden Delicious) are the only varieties currently available, but Arctic Fuji and Gala will be hitting the market in coming years.

If you’re interested in trying an Arctic apple, you’ll have to wait until harvest in the autumn. Carter says they “pretty well have no apples left” from last year’s crop, and it does, after all, take a while for trees to grow.

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