Grower Hopes Non-Browning Apple Slices Change Shoppers' Minds About GMOs

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Supporters think the Arctic Apple will be a game changer - the first GMO to be marketed directly to consumers as convenience food.

2017 promises to be a fruitful year for Okanagan Specialty Fruits, a Canadian company that has spent the last two decades developing a non-browning apple, together with biotech firm Intrexon. The Arctic Apple, as it’s called, had its first commercial harvest this past fall and will finally reach stores this week, starting at ten trial supermarkets in the Midwestern U.S. The apple has also been approved for sale in Canada.

The Arctic Apple is a genetically modified organism (GMO) that is hailed by supporters as a turning point in the controversy over whether or not GMOs are safe. As the Washington Post points out, up until now GMOs have been mainly defended as a way to protect crops and improve crop yields for farmers – a world that feels far removed from urban grocery shoppers – but the Arctic Apple is the first GMO to be marketed directly to consumers as a convenience food.

The apples are deemed convenient because they do not brown. Health Canada explains the process:

“The science behind the Arctic apple is quite simple. A gene was introduced into the Arctic apple that results in a reduction in the levels of enzymes that make apples turn brown when sliced. In every other way, the Arctic apple tree and its fruit are identical to any other apple.”

They will be sold pre-sliced in 10-ounce plastic bags (ugh, more single-use packaging), based on the highly successful baby carrot model; but unlike the pre-sliced apples that are already sold in stores and served in school cafeterias and Happy Meals, the Arctic slices will not be doused in chemicals – at the time of slicing, that is.

Interestingly, the apples’ genetically modified origin will not be stated on the packaging, although customers will be able to find out if they scan a QR code with a smartphone. The Washington Post writes:

“This was one of the most controversial points of the Obama administration’s GMO labeling law, which requires genetically-modified ingredients be noted with an on-package statement, approved symbol, or electronic code. Okanagan has argued that, thanks to press coverage, most consumers will already know that its apples are GMOs.”

Okanagan is touting the Arctic Apples as beneficial mostly because of their potential to reduce waste. An estimated 40 percent of apples that go to market never get eaten because they bruise and brown so easily in transit, and nobody wants to buy those apples; nor do kids want to eat brown apple slices from their lunchbox. While it sounds good, critics have pointed out that non-browning means it will be difficult for people to assess the apple’s freshness.

It remains to be seen how the public reacts to non-browning apple slices. In case they don’t fly off store shelves as quickly as hoped, Okanagan has hired a marketing consultant and consumer research firm to boost the product’s appeal in future months.