Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF) of Summerland, British Columbia, a biotechnology company, has submitted an application to the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) for market approval of a genetically modified apple that won’t brown soon after slicing.

To produce the non-browning effects in apples, OSF employed a patented technology  originally developed by Australian researchers for potatoes that, in essence, “silences” the gene that produces the enzyme polyphenol oxidase. Once that enzyme is turned off, apples that are sliced or exposed to air will not brown quickly as most apple varieties tend to do.

In contrast to “transgenics,” a type of genetic modification that introduces foreign genes into a plant commonly used in modern day crop breeding, OSF boasts the use of a new method called cisgenics. The cisgenic approach allows scientists to alter an existing apple gene without introducing new genes into the plant.

The company reports that its researchers have performed 5 years of vigorous field testing in order to track the behavior of the genetically modified apples. So far, tests have yielded non-browning apples in varieties such as Gala, Fuji, Golden, and Granny.

In addition, research has shown that the OSF genetically modified apples are more likely to resist “cosmetic deterioration,” meaning the fruit “will have less superficial scuff marks and finger bruises from harvest and post-harvest handling; it is less prone to scrabble marks when packing; and will have less superficial marking and shrinkage at the retail level.”

Currently, the food service industry frequently rinses sliced apples in solutions of water and vitamin C or lemon juice or other antioxidant solutions in order to maintain freshness and avoid browning. However, this method can be costly and may also result in an off flavor.

According to OSF, the genetic technology used to modify various apples would not only lower the cost of producing fresh apple slices for snacks, salads and other meals, but would also benefit retailers and consumers.

OSF President Neal Carter adds, “We think that there is value in this product all the way along the value chain, growers, packers and especially the food service industry, where people are putting fruit in bags and on buffet tables and in salads.”

However, despite the potential benefits of the non-browning apple, there remain many critics of genetically modified food products.

For example, some opponents have expressed the concern that a non-browning apple may deceive consumers into thinking it is fresh when it is not. Others fear the risk of cross-pollination between genetically modified apples and conventional apples if planted within a close proximity.

USDA recognizes that the public has mixed feelings about modern biotechnology and its use in food production. “There is an ongoing controversy over the benefits and risks of this technology, and concerns about unforeseen consequences of its use,” says USDA.

USDA notes that proponents of genetic modification argue that there are several significant benefits to its use in crop breeding including “improved agricultural performance (less labor, energy, and cost input), reduced usage of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, more efficient land usage, ability to grow crops in previously unfavorable environment leading to improved ability to feed an increasing world population, improved sensory characteristics and nutritional attributes of food, removal of allergens or toxic components, and improved processing characteristics leading to reduced waste and lower food costs to the consumer.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, opponents view biotechnology in food production as an unnecessary interference with nature that could have severe unintended consequences on the environment and human health. Moreover, those critics point to the moral and ethical concerns, labeling issues, and socioeconomic implications raised by the use of genetic modification in food.

To date, APHIS has reviewed approximately 100 petitions for genetically engineered or modified crops. However, only a limited number of those genetically modified crops have been approved for consumption and trade on the international market, including Bt Corn, Golden Rice, Flavr SavrTM Tomatoes, and Roundup Ready® Soybeans.

Government approval of the non-browning apple, which OSF has branded with the label “Arctic” named for its long-lasting white flesh, may take years.  Even if the apples receive market approval, the true test will be whether consumers will buy them.