Tuesday Talks with Dr. Patterson

February 17, 2015

An Arctic Apple A Day?

On February 13, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved for planting the Arctic apple, a genetically engineered (GE) apple that is resistant to turning brown when sliced or bruised.  The Arctic apple, developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruit, will be available in the Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties.  The apples have been engineered to suppress an enzyme that causes browning.  This apple joins a very short list of genetically engineered fresh produce, including sweet corn and papaya.  Sweet corn plants were engineered to resist insect pests and papaya plants were engineered to resist a virus.  A genetically engineered potato was also approved by USDA in November.  The genetically engineered potato, named Innate and developed by J.R. Simplot, the world’s largest potato processor and supplier to McDonald’s, reduces the production of acrylamide and resists bruising, which can cause black spots.  Acrylamide is a known carcinogen that is produced when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures.  Both of these newly developed apples and potatoes were engineered to produce traits beneficial to consumers.  The critical question now is whether consumers will accept these products.

 Some may be inclined to suggest that consumers will accept the genetically engineered apple and potato varieties.  In November, voters in Colorado and Oregon rejected initiatives that would require labeling of food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in these states.  California voters rejected a similar initiative in 2012 and Washington voters rejected GMO labeling requirements in 2013.  These outcomes could suggest that consumers are comfortable with food products containing ingredients from genetically engineered plants, principally corn and soybeans.  Nearly 95 percent of the corn and soybeans produced in the U.S. are GE varieties and these products are common ingredients in processed foods.  It is estimated that 80 percent of all products offered in grocery stores contain genetically engineered ingredients (e.g. corn meal, corn oil, high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, etc.).  This, of course, excludes products labeled as organic or GMO-free.  Opponents of GMO labeling argue that it would be costly, raising consumer food prices, and would not provide any new information.  However, three states have approved GMO labeling – Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont.  Vermont’s law is scheduled to go into effect in 2016.  It could also be argued that the genetically engineered apples and potatoes contain traits of value to consumers.  Past genetic engineering in corn and soybeans created producer benefits.  While reducing browning in apples is arguably a cosmetic characteristic, reducing acrylamide in potatoes could offer some health benefits to consumers.  Still, reducing browning in apples could make pre-sliced apples more appealing to consumers.  This would be of value to restaurants and food processors producing pre-sliced apple products, which is a fast growing product category.  These manufacturers are already using other processing methods to reduce browning in pre-sliced apple products, as do consumers making apple salads at home.  Whether consumers will accept the GE potatoes or apples remains to be seen.

 Processors and restaurants have already responded to these new developments, however.  Soon after the announcement of the Innate potato, McDonald’s announced that it will not buy GMO potatoes.  Simplot then announced that it would target fresh potato markets with its new potato.  This was not the first time restaurant companies rejected a GMO potato.  In the late 1990s, Monsanto released the New Leaf potato, which was resistant to the Colorado potato beetle.  Potato buyers, mainly fast-food restaurants, rejected the New Leaf potato and Monsanto eventually pulled the product from the market.  McDonalds and Gerber have already stated that they will not buy Innate apples.  Exporters have also expressed opposition to the development of the genetically engineered potatoes and apples, arguing that it could cause foreign apple and potato buyers, who oppose GMO foods, to pull away from the U.S. as a supplier.  Last year, China rejected corn exports from the U.S. containing a GE corn variety developed by Syngenta that China did not approve for import.  Some U.S. corn growers and exporters are now suing Syngenta for failing to obtain import approval in China.  Simplot acknowledged that growers would need to market Innate separate from other potatoes and Okanagan says that its apple will be labeled as Arctic.  Okanagan has said that it will not use the words genetically modified for genetically engineered in labeling its apple.

 USDA’s approval of these apple and potato products indicates that this agency considers them to be safe for the environment and that they will not harm other agricultural products; FDA’s approval indicates that the agency considers them to be safe food products.  Production will take several years to grow to marketable quantities, particularly for the apple product.  However, it remains to be seen, how consumers will respond to these new genetically engineered products.  Will consumers want an Arctic apple or potatoes with reduced acrylamide?  American consumers are already eating genetically engineered papayas, sweet corn, and whole host of processed food products containing GE corn and soybeans.  How about baseball, hotdogs and Arctic apple pie?


Dr. Paul Patterson is Associate Dean for Instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.