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GMO Apples Get The Nod, But Not Much Of A Welcoming Party

Arctic Granny (right), a GMO variety created by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, got the gren light from federal regulators Friday. The apple doesn't turn brown like a conventional Granny Smith apple (left).
Okanagan Specialty Fruits
Arctic Granny (right), a GMO variety created by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, got the gren light from federal regulators Friday. The apple doesn't turn brown like a conventional Granny Smith apple (left).

We have good news for all of you who find browned apple slices unappetizing. It's bad news, though, if you don't like scientists fiddling with your food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has given a green light to apples that have been genetically modified so that they don't turn brown when you cut them open.

The apples in question are modified versions of Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples. They're called Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny, and they were created by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, a small company in British Columbia, Canada.

The company inserted some extra genes into these apples. The genes are actually extra copies of genes that apples already possess, and as a result, the genes are "silenced:" They no longer produce the enzyme that's responsible for apple flesh turning brown when it's exposed to air.

According to Neal Carter, the president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the main market for these apples will be food service companies that serve sliced apples. Currently, they prevent the apple slices from getting brown through some other method, usually a preservative similar to the lemon juice in your kitchen.

Regulators at the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday they'd decided that the new apples pose no additional dangers. This means that farmers are now legally free to plant and sell them.

Okanagan Specialty Fruits, however, is also waiting for a letter of approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which is evaluating the fruit's safety for consumers. The FDA is also evaluating the safety of potatoes that were modified in a similar manner.

Yet other hurdles remain. Critics of genetically modified food, including Consumers Union, Food and Water Watch and Friends of the Earth, unleashed a barrage of protest Friday against the USDA's decision.

"It's interesting that USDA chose to approve this GMO apple on Friday the 13th -- it's certainly an unlucky day for the apple growers, consumers and food companies that don't want this unnecessary new GMO," Lisa Archer, food and technology program director at Friends of the Earth, said in a statement.

The groups say the technology needs more critical scrutiny, and believe that the government's system for approving such crops relies too heavily on tests carried out by the companies themselves. The Environmental Working Group noted in a statement that the new apples may "thaw Congressional action on GMO labeling," fueling efforts to pass legislation that would require food manufacturers to label foods containing GMOs.

Some important players in the apple business, such as the Northwest Horticultural Council, also are opposed to the new apples. They are worried the advent of GMO apples will ruin the wholesome image of the entire apple section in supermarkets. There also are concerns that foreign markets, where the new apples are not yet approved for sale, might turn away from American apple exports.

Such uncertainties could convince many apple growers to shun the new apples, at least until major customers have decided whether or not to buy them. "I think it's going to be a very minor market," says Christian Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents fruit producers in Oregon and Washington. "It's hard to believe that there will be mass plantings of this."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 17, 2015 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that the FDA has already approved a potato that has been genetically modified in a similar way to the GMO apple. In fact, the FDA is still evaluating both the GMO apple and the potato.
Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.