On the regulatory front, there’s good news in food and agriculture: The federal government is moving towards approval of the Arctic Apple.
What in the world, you may ask, is an Arctic Apple? In short, it is an apple whose flesh stays white after you slice it. This neat little trick will make the apple more appealing to finicky eaters — children, say — who turn their noses up at slices that have turned brown. It would allow caterers to put apple slices on buffet tables where they have to sit for a while. It could significantly increase the demand for apples over a period of time.
So what’s the problem? Why is federal approval needed for such an appealing product?
Because it’s biotechnology, that’s why. The apple stays white because the gene that causes it to turn brown when exposed to air has been turned out. Gene silencing, they call it.
In most biotech crops — corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, sugar beets — the genetic engineering aspect is invisible to consumers. The plant is engineered to resist insects or to survive weedkiller, but the food made from the plant is no different in any meaningful way.
The Arctic Apple will be the only plant product on the market that you can tell at a glance has been bioengineered — because it doesn’t turn brown. The benefit will be out there for all to see.
Making the benefits of bioengineering obvious could be a real turning point for biotechnology. When people see that biotech is not just harmless, but helpful, public attitudes could really start to change.
First, however, the apple has to get federal approval, based on exhaustive reviews of scientific evidence of environmental and food safety.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) found no reason to think that the apple poses any threat to the environment, to insect life, to other varieties of apples or types of fruit, or anything else, for that matter.
“No cumulative effects are expected from approving the petition for nonregulated status,” the agency said.
Of course, this is music to the ears of Neal Carter, the bioresource engineer who runs Okanagan Specialty Fruits in British Columbia. His company developed the apple, starting back in 2003.
“After a decade, we are nearly ready to provide the numerous benefits the nonbrowning trait offers to producers and consumers alike,” he says. “These benefits include the potential to significantly reduce food waste and help create a consumption trigger for apples!”
APHIS invited public comments on its reports, but they are so definitive that it seems highly unlikely any anti-biotech arguments could make the agency change its mind. The Food & Drug Administration also gets to weigh in. FDA also has a long record of approving biotech crops, albeit more slowly than the industry would like.
Federal approval could be the start of something big — biotech for the obvious benefit of consumers and not just for farmers. Once that door is pried open, many products could follow.