The genetically modified non-browning apples a B.C. man has been developing for more than two decades will finally show up on some U.S. produce shelves next month. But Canada will have to wait to take its bite.
The Arctic apple, developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), will start being sold in February at 10 different stores in the U.S Midwest — marking the first time genetically modified apples will be available in the produce section.
OSF founder and president Neal Carter, who is based in Summerland, B.C., said this initial rollout isn’t a commercial launch — that may happen toward the end of the year. Instead OSF is test marketing to see if shoppers are keen.
“We’ll learn from our American experience and we’ll bring that to Canada,” he told CBC News Thursday, though there are no final plans about when that will happen. Carter said it might be two or three years before the Arctic apple shows up on shelves, if not more.
“It’s surprisingly complicated to bring a product to market.”
‘We don’t want to demonize the product‘
Carter would know. He has been working on developing the Arctic apple since November 1996. The apples don’t turn brown because his team figured out how to silence the genes that produce the browning enzyme.
Several existing varieties of applies are also slow to brown when exposed to the air, including Cortland, Empire, Ginger Gold and Cameo.
The apples will be sold in the U.S. pre-sliced, but their labelling won’t specifically say they have been genetically modified. That information is on the website, Carter said, accessible by a code which can be scanned on the packaging.
“I don’t think we’re hiding behind the fact that we use that technique,” he said. “We don’t want to demonize the product by putting a big GMO sticker on it.”
Growers and GMO opponents have raised concerns about genetically engineered crops like the apple and the complicated technology behind it, but Health Canada has approved it for sale here, as has the Department of Agriculture in the U.S.
Rene Van Acker, a dean and professor at the Ontario Agriculture College at the University of Guelph, has been studying the relation between genetically modified and non-genetically modified crops for more than 15 years.
He said, with Health Canada’s approval, there’s no reason to fear the apples.
“Generally, it’s not a bad technology and we do have regulators. It’s not like someone is producing this in their basement and putting it on a shelf somewhere,” he said. “As a scientist, skepticism is healthy but it has to be informed.”
But will shoppers bite?
That said, Van Acker doesn’t think the apples will take off because he doesn’t see a big enough consumer demand for them.
“There’s no labelling requirements for these apples, so I’m not sure if anyone will know [what they are] necessarily.”
And though the browning enzyme genes have been turned off, an Arctic apple can still go brown if bacteria or fungi gets to it.
“When an Arctic apple goes brown, it’s a second pathogen,” Carter said, adding it could happen as soon as a few days after the apple has been sliced but it might not go brown for a few weeks, if at all.
Carter has touted the technology for lowering the cost of producing fresh slices and making apples a more popular option for quick meals. He admits there are still a few hurdles in his way.
“What’s holding us back right now is production,” he said. The company is working to expand its orchard base and planting more trees to grow the apples. It takes a lot of apples to go commercial — for the short test rollout in 10 stores, he figures OSF must have around 6,800 kilograms of apples ready.
Working with the national retailers can also be a challenge, so OSF will focus on regional retailers for now. The company was bought by Intrexon Corporation in 2015, an American company involved in synthetic biology who have helped expand its footprint in the U.S.
He said getting the apples on the shelf for the first time marks a major milestone.
“We didn’t really know if we’d ever get there,” Carter said. “It’s kind of the end of one chapter and the start of another.”