An Apple a Day…

Val Giddings January 24, 2017
January 24, 2017

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As The Washington Post and others have reported, the “next big thing” in GMOs hitting the market is an apple that doesn’t get brown when sliced. There are a number of commercial and home remedies that simulate the same result—for example, a dousing in lime juice (works on avocados too)—but this is a trait built into the biology of the apple and stably inherited. Coming from a small start-up in British Columbia (recently acquired by Intrexon), and called the Arctic® Apple, the hope is that it will cut processing costs, reduce food waste (a very big deal of late), and, the developers hope, gain market share and generate profits.

We know we should be eating more fruits and vegetables, so this is something we should all be able to get behind, right? No, of course not. (“Round up the usual suspects!”) As the Post reports, “Among the loudest critics of the new apple are Friends of the Earth and Food and Water Watch, both environmental groups, and the Organic Consumers Association, Consumers Union and Center for Food Safety, all of which represent customers.”

These groups deny the science of GM crops, and they advocate measures that would increase costs to consumers, thereby denying them the opportunity to choose new products that solve significant problems. But as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “We are all entitled to our own opinions. We are not entitled to our own facts.” The data indicate that what we have here is a collection of claques claiming to represent “customers” but who in reality work full time toward objectives clearly not in consumer’s interests.

One of the claims the stalking horses for the organic food industry make is that the company behind the Arctic® Apple, Okanagan, has “not run enough safety tests,” and therefore, “It carries with it environmental and health risks. That puts a larger burden of proof on the company that makes it.”

“Environmental and health risks…” Let’s unpack that. First, these professional opponents of agricultural innovation somehow consistently fail to mention the risk assessments that have been performed over a decade and at no small cost. The company provided APHIS with voluminous information, based on nearly a decade’s worth of field trials, testing, and analysis. USDA performed an extensive, preliminary analysis, published it in the Federal Register, and invited public comments. APHIS then reviewed all comments received, revised its preliminary findings, and published a final analysis and conclusion in which they found the Arctic® Apple as safe to grow as any other. And USDA has provided a handy summary of the results of all this, here. And meanwhile, FDA concluded a review of the safety of the apple, which demonstrated it to be perfectly safe to eat.

At the end of all this—hundreds of pages of data, analysis, review and scrutiny; millions spent on a decade of field trials, data collection, review, and analysis; and regulatory compliance—the usual suspects—remain unsatisfied, even though every reasonable question has been asked, and answered.

So let’s review what this is really all about. As we have noted before, there is nothing new here. The genetic change to create a non-browning apple involved disabling the expression of a gene encoding an enzyme, polyphenol oxidase (PPO). This enzyme causes browning in some fruits when they are exposed to air, but otherwise lacks any indispensable role in plant metabolism. The main impact of the presence of this enzyme, from the human point of view, is to exacerbate food waste. There are no data to suggest its absence leads to any significant consequence beyond reducing spoilage. Though widely found in plants, it is not ubiquitous, and its metabolic functions are duplicated by a plethora of functionally similar proteins that obviously take up whatever metabolic slack may result from its removal. In this respect, it seems to be a molecular analogue of male nipples but without the ornamental value.

Is there anybody who is not familiar with sultanas, the ubiquitous golden raisin? Turns out a natural mutation in grapes inactivated the PPO gene by a much clumsier and less precise method than was used to improve the apple. In addition to shutting down the PPO gene/enzyme in the grapes, this entailed a host of cascading effects including the production of novel protein that completely escaped any scrutiny for toxicity or allergenicity. Nevertheless, this novel product “escaped” regulation entirely and has become omnipresent in markets around the world since its introduction… In 1962.

Although the usual suspects can be counted on to sound alarms, as Gertrude Stein noted, “There is no there there.” The controversy is faux, the opposition has no case, and it’s time to move on. Let us hope the innovators have produced an apple that will keep away not just the doctors, but also the fear mongers. Now let’s all go have an apple.