Exciting news was announced Friday, Feb. 13, when the USDA approved two versions of apples genetically engineered to resist enzymatic browning—you know, that unappealing color apples turn after being cut and exposed to oxygen. Developed by small Canadian company Okangan Specialty Fruits (OSF), the new apples are modified versions of the classic Golden Delicious and Granny Smith varieties and are called Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny. The project began more than 14 years ago by farmer Neal Carter (OSF president) and after intensive research and experimentation today’s Arctic Apples have the ability to stay white for hours after being cut. These new apples won’t be available until autumn of 2016, as apple trees to take time to grow and produce fruit, but have already been meet with a great deal of resistance. However, though they bear the oft-eschewed label of ‘genetically engineered,’ or ‘genetically modified organism,’ there is truly nothing to be scared of.
Arctic Apples are able to resist browning because a DNA sequence has been added to the genetic code (from the apple, not another species). This triggers RNA interference, or RNAi, which is a natural defense and gene expression regulation mechanism. The process works by inserting RNA to attach to the RNA of interest, which in this case would be the RNA that causes the browning enzyme to be activated. The plant can recognize the error and attempt to fix it by degrading an RNA, which is the one responsible for the enzyme. This means that instead of deleting, mutating, or silencing the gene that controls the enzyme, it is merely never turned on. In this case, the RNAi mechanism prevents polyphenol oxidases (PPO) involved in apple browning from being produced. PPO causes a class of molecules to quickly react together to form chains, which result in the production of brown pigments (polyphenols), and this is what we see after apples are cut.
That said, no self-respecting GMO would expect to escape the criticism and fear mongering of groups like Friends of the Earth, who have claimed that without the natural browning mechanism consumers may be eating “decaying” fruit. The Environmental Working Group also pitched in with fear-inducing claims about pesticide use increase—debunked by OSF’s President Neal Carter in a Reddit Ask Me Anything online forum (AMA) last week—and other consumers who say Arctic Applies are ‘simply unnecessary.’ Another group even refers to Arctic Apples as ‘botox apples,’ as they reduce the technology to seemingly cosmetic enhancements. So why do we need non-browning apples anyways? To answer this we need to consider the situation in which the world currently finds itself. We are expected to add 2 billion more people to this blue marble in the next 35 years or so and those two billion people are going to need to eat. A recent report explained that in the U.S. alone, approximately 60 million metric tons of food is wasted, and about one third of food produced in the world is never actually consumed. This excessive waste also has climate implications, since food that is thrown out degrades in landfills to produce methane gas. One way to help feed the world’s growing population is by reducing food waste. This is where the Arctic Apples come in. No data is available, since the apples aren’t currently on the market and await FDA approval as part of a voluntary review, but I would argue that if we can reduce the number of apple slices that get thrown away on a large scale (think school lunches and pre-sliced packaging) we will have made a positive contribution to food-waste reduction. The apples certainly won’t solve the problem of food waste, but they are a big step in the right direction.