Biotech News

   

Misconceptions Continue About The Non-Browning Apples Coming To A Store Near You

Feb 15, 2017

 The technique used to achieve the non-browning trait is no more or less risky than other plant improvement techniques

Health and life science site Stat News is the latest to report misinformation about non-browning Arctic Apples, which are beginning to show up in select test market stores this month. A February 2nd Stat News opinion piece brought up vague concerns over "tinkering with nature’s DNA in new and potentially problematic ways," explaining that “Gene-silenced Arctic apples that do not turn brown when exposed to air, even when rotten, will be sold in stores in the Midwest this week.” Except Arctic Apples do turn brown when rotten.

Enzymatic browning—which isn’t the same as rotting—in apples is caused by the fruit’s natural chemical reaction to cell injury. When an apple is bumped or cut, cells rupture, and an enzyme called PPO (polyphenol oxidase) triggers a chemical reaction that causes primary browning. The Arctic Apple’s PPO genes are silenced with a low-PPO apple gene sequence, which reduces production of the enzyme by about 90%. It’s a precise change that doesn’t alter any other characteristic of the fruit.

Secondary browning, which occurs when rotting sets in due to bacteria and fungi, still happens. The non-browning technique has been applied to apple favorites Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and Fuji. Benefits resonate throughout the supply chain, from growers to consumers, as the Okanagan Specialty Fruits website explains. These benefits include less waste from bruising, cost and labor savings from application of non-browning chemical treatments, better texture and mouthfeel, and increased consumption of nutritious fruit at a time when fruit and vegetable intake is far too low.

Stat News is hardly the first to get Arctic Apple facts wrong. Dr. Oz, for one, pushed misinformation on the apple in a 2015 segment entitled “The Non-Browning GMO Apple: Is It Safe?” Spoiler alert—it’s safe. More specifically, the technique used to achieve the non-browning trait is no more or less risky than other plant improvement techniques. Note that the term “GMO,” which stands for Genetically Modified Organism, is kind of like the term “man-made dwelling.” Yes, human beings build houses, and all houses are unnatural compared to cave dwellings. But we judge a home’s safety and other features on the quality of the building itself, not on the tools used to build it.

The same should be the case with agriculture. Practically everything we eat, including foods labeled natural, organic, or even heirloom, have had their genes modified using unnatural methods. Just a few of these methods are exposure of a plant to chemicals and radiation to scramble its DNA, tinkering with the number of chromosomes in a plant, adding one or a few carefully chosen genes to a plant, or “forcing” plants from different species to breed. Only one of these is considered a “GMO” technique. If that sounds arbitrary, that’s because it is, as I’ve discussed several times, including here and here.  

Since Arctic Apples don’t turn brown, Oz’s guest brought up the baseless concern of “fraud,” claiming that without labels, when served in pre-packaged slices or in salad bars, most consumers will see pristine, white sliced apples and think they’re freshly cut. Such criticism of the Arctic Apple is common among anti-GMO interest groups like the Organic Consumers Association and the ubiquitous Non-GMO Project, which says that “browning is a sign that fruit is no longer fresh, masking this natural signal could lead people to consume rotting [GMO] apples.” It’s a nonsensical concern, considering that nobody cries fraud over salad bar cucumbers not turning brown to indicate dwindling freshness.

Typical objections to Arctic Apples include run-of-the-mill concerns over GMOs, like unintended consequences of genetic engineering, and food system ills that often get illogically lumped in. As I described here, pesticide use and patents aren’t unique to GMOs, nor are GMOs the culprits when it comes to obesity, monoculture, or other perceived food system ills.

There are also no consequences that are unique to modern molecular genetic engineering techniques. Humans created broccoli, kale, cauliflower and cabbage, all of which are unrecognizable from their common ancestor. Like these veggies, when it comes to the apple, none of the varieties we know and love, from Gala to Golden Delicious, occurred in nature. As my co-author and I explained in a Slate article on Oz’s segment on the apples, the doctor doesn’t “understand that the entire apple industry owes the diversity of varieties to different gene expression patterns. A Golden Delicious apple looks and tastes different from a Red Delicious because different apple genes are expressed. Recent genomic sequencing shows there are about 57,000 genes in the Golden Delicious apple.” There is only one change with Arctic Apples, and there are no novel proteins and no effect on the fruit other than its non-browning traits.

I can’t wait to sink my teeth into these apples and pack them in my kids’ lunches. My beef with Arctic Apples is minor—there are no Arctic Pink Ladies.

Kavin Senapathy is an author and mother of two based in Madison, Wisconsin. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.