Greetings and salutations my fellow readers. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride publishing the last two posts on GMOs, so I thought to myself, where should I go next? Dive further into the rabbit hole (making myself ever more unpopular), or switch topics? I have an interview with a scientist, check! With a farmer, check! Biotech firm? Bingo! An opportunity thus presented itself, so down I went further down the rabbit hole.
So, to round out—and conclude—my trifecta (or triumvirate—a much cooler word that makes me sound smarter than I am) of posts about GMO, I have just finished up an email Q&A with the CEO and founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), Neal Carter, whose company makes Arctic Apples (apples that don’t brown). In my two previous Q&As— with a scientist here and with a family farmer here—I had commentary and concluding thoughts; this time, I prefer to let their positions stand on its own two feet, as it is more than capable of.
Do note, however. I am not trying to convince anyone to not eat organic food, or to eat GMO food, so don’t get your knickers in a twist.
1) What prompted your company to create a GM nonbrowning apple? Why not, for example, try to do the same with hybridization?
Our motivation for developing biotech apples, and all our other projects under development, is to introduce value-added traits that will benefit the tree-fruit industry. We have chosen to focus specifically on nonbrowning Arctic® apples as our flagship project for a number of reasons. One of the chief ones is that apple consumption has been flat-to-declining for the past two decades and we are confident the nonbrowning apple trait can create a consumption trigger while also reducing food waste throughout the supply chain.
Another key motivation is ever-increasing demand for convenience. Arctic apples are ideally suited for the freshcut market, which is expensive to enter because of the browning issue. We often refer to the consumption trigger that convenient “baby” carrots created – they now make up 2/3rds of all U.S. carrot sales!
As for why we use biotechnology to achieve this, it’s because we knew we could make a comparatively minor change safely, relatively quickly, and precisely. We silence only four genes, specifically, the ones that produce polyphenol oxidase, which is the enzyme that drives the browning process. We do so primarily through the use of other apple genes, and no new proteins are created. If we were to attempt to breed this trait conventionally, we could easily spend decades trying with no guarantee of success.
2) What benefits will the Arctic apple bring to the food market? Are there quantitative studies that can predict how effective it could be?
In addition to addressing stagnant apple consumption and tapping into the underutilized freshcut and foodservice markets, Arctic apples offer plenty of other benefits throughout the supply chain.
For growers and packers, nonbrowning apples can help significantly reduce the huge number of apples that never make it to market because of minor superficial marks such as finger bruising and bin rubs. So much of the food produced today is wasted purely for cosmetic reasons. This extends to retail where the nonbrowning trait can have a big impact on shrinkage and making displays more attractive while also offering exciting new value-added apple products.
Consumers will also benefit from throwing away far less fruit at home – how many apples get bruised up on the way back from the grocery store or in kids’ lunchboxes? Our goal is helping consumers, especially kids, eat healthier and waste less food. Last year, one grade 2 teacher wrote about how excited she is for nonbrowning apples, explaining she sees countless perfectly good apples and apple slices thrown out by her students due to minor browning and bruising. Consumers will also enjoy other tangible benefits like new opportunities for cut apples in many cooking applications.
As for quantifiable evidence showing the value of these benefits, food waste has been a major issue over the past year with recent estimates from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization suggesting around one-third of food produced is wasted. The numbers are even worse for fruit, where around half of what’s produced never ends up getting eaten.
As far as the potential to create a consumption trigger, the produce industry is full of examples of how making fruit more convenient, especially for the foodservice industry, results in huge consumption boosts. We mentioned how baby carrots now make up two-thirds of carrot sales and reports tracking major fruit and vegetable consumption trends frequently emphasize convenience. One example explains one of the most prominent, ongoing trends “is a consumer demand for foods of high and predictable quality that offer convenience and variety.” Arctic apples satisfy all these requirements.
For apples, specifically, there’s lots of attention given to how various chemical treatments can slow browning and plenty of attempts to conventionally breed low browning varieties (though this is quite different from being truly nonbrowning). For instance, a notable 2009 publication from the Journal of Food Engineering discusses how “the market for fresh-cut apples is projected to continue to grow as consumers demand fresh, convenient and nutritious snacks”. Yet it also explains that the “industry is still hampered by-product quality deterioration” because when “the cut surface turns brown; it reduces not only the visual quality but also results in undesirable changes in flavour and loss of nutrients, due to enzymatic browning.” Again, Arctic apples address these issues.
Finally, some of the most convincing evidence that the nonbrowning traits will provide substantial value – both apple producers and consumers have told us so! In 2006/07 we surveyed a number of apple industry executives, 76% of whom told us they were interested in Arctic apples. In focus groups, we have found that over 80% are positively interested in Arctic apples and 100% of participants wanted to try them. Even more encouraging, when we surveyed 1,000 self identified apple eaters in 2011, we found that their likelihood to buy Arctic apples continued to increase the more they learned about the science behind them!
3) How many, and how intensive, were the studies performed to show Arctic apples are as safe as other apples? Were the studies peer-reviewed? If so, by whom? (You may wish to discuss what was and/or wasn’t changed.)
Before getting into the specifics, it’s important to put things in perspective to show how rigorous the review truly is; particularly arduous for a small, resource-tight company like ours: (See timeline)
So Arctic apples, our very first project, still haven’t been commercialized 17 years after we were founded and over a decade after we proved the technology and planted them! That means we now have over ten years of real-world evidence that Arctic trees grow, respond to pest and disease pressure, flower, and fruit just as conventional trees do.
Over this time, our apples have likely become one of the most tested fruits in existence. This makes detailing all of the specific tests impossible here, but we encourage anyone interested to view our extensive, 163-page petition on the USDA’s website, which provides full details.
Quickly highlighting some of the key ones:
- Trees were closely monitored by a third-party horticultural consultant for any difference in their response to pests
- Agronomic data including how fast trees grow, how much fruit they produce, etc. was recorded by a third-party
- Experiments were completed to monitor pollen spread and potential for cross-pollination, resulting in two peer-reviewed papers
- Nutrition and composition of mature fruit was tested and deemed equivalent to controls
- Possible presence of novel proteins tested and confirmed none present
These tests were performed by a variety of reputable groups and individuals, some third-party, some in-house. Our field trials were monitored and data was collected by independent horticultural consultants and an Integrated Pest Management specialist.
Of particular importance is the fact that there are no proteins in Arctic fruit that aren’t in all apples. This shows there’s nothing “new” in our apples that will affect consumers. This is expected as we silence the genes that cause browning, rather than introduce new attributes. To give an idea of how sophisticated the tests used to prove this are, they would be able to detect a single penny amongst 100-250 ton coal-sized rail cars! We are confident Arctic apples are safe, and soon, we anticipate FDA’s confirmation of this.
So what has all of this extensive testing taught us? Exactly what we thought it would – Arctic trees and fruits are just the same as their conventional counterparts until you bite, slice or bruise the fruit!
4) Can you name a few of the misconceptions — if any — that people associate your company with, or accuse your company of, when they find out you’re a biotech company? If there are misconceptions, why are they wrong or miss the big picture?
Absolutely – just as there are countless misconceptions about biotech foods in general, there are also plenty of myths about our company and Arctic apples. In fact, one of our most popular blog posts ever is titled “Addressing common misconceptions of Arctic orchards and fruit”.
We invite readers to visit that post and explore our site in general for more details, but the two most common misconceptions about Arctic apples are:
- Arctic apples will cross-pollinate with other orchards, causing organic orchards to lose organic certification: No organic crop has ever been decertified from inadvertent pollen gene flow. Even if pollen from an Arctic flower did pollinate an organic or conventional fruit, the resulting fruit is the same as the mother flower….not that of the pollen donor. Additionally, we are implementing numerous stewardship standards to ensure cross-pollination won’t occur, including buffer rows, bee-hive placement, and restricting distance from other orchards.
- Because Arctic apples don’t brown, they will disguise old/damaged fruit: The opposite is true! Arctic apples won’t experience enzymatic browning (which occurs when even slightly damaged cells are exposed to air), but the decomposition that comes from fungi, bacteria and/or rotting will be just the same as conventional apples. This means that you will not see superficial damage, but you will see a change in appearance when the true quality is impacted.
Other accusations we hear somewhat frequently from a vocal minority who oppose all biotech foods are “we don’t know what the effects will be down the road” or that we’re “messing with God/Mother Nature”. Regarding the first claim, the science tools we now have are truly amazing and we have an unprecedented level of precision, control and analysis when developing biotech crops. They must be meticulously reviewed before approval and around three trillion meals with biotech ingredients have now been consumed without incident. As to the messing with God/nature charges, biotech-enhanced crops are really just one more advancement in a long history of human-driven food improvements – and even the Amish and the Vatican support these advances!
5) As an insider, you are privy to the goings-on and workings of the biotech industry, what do you envision the future of biotech to be? What new seeds are coming down the line and what potential advantages or disadvantages might they bring?
We foresee biotech continuing to be the most rapidly adopted crop technology ever, as it has been for the past 17 years. We also anticipate already realized benefits from biotech crops to continue, such as those highlighted by a fifteen year study including increased net earnings of $78.4 billion for farmers (mostly from developing nations), a reduction of 438 million kg of pesticide spraying and the equivalent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as removing 8.6 million cars from the road for a year. Two major categories in particular where we’ll see further advancements are in environmental sustainability (reduced pesticide use, carbon emissions, food waste) and higher crop yields under adverse conditions (from pest resistance, drought-tolerance, etc.).
Another major trend you’ll see is the increased presence of biotech foods with direct consumer benefits, particularly nutrition. We will see many new projects following in the footsteps of crops like Golden Rice, which is fortified with beta-carotene; a precursor to Vitamin A. The World Health Organization has identified that around 250 million children under the age of 5 are affected by Vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness and death. Biotech crops like Golden rice can potentially save millions of lives by helping address this, and efforts are already underway to produce other Vitamin A enhanced crops including bananas and cassava.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, though, as there are many other exciting developments on the way including many other nutrient-enhancements for cassava, numerous drought-resistant crops, blight-resistant potatoes and many more. I actually highlighted some of these crops in a TEDx talk I gave in October 2012 on the value of agricultural biotechnology, which is available to watch online.
6) As a biotech company, do you bear the brunt of the anti-GMO backlash nominally directed at Monsanto and DuPont? If so, how has this affected you? Please be specific.
All companies who develop biotech crops have to deal with a certain level of backlash from the vocal, emotional minority who oppose biotechnology.
We are quite unique because when consumers discuss biotech companies, names like Monsanto and DuPont, as you mention, are the first ones that come to mind, rarely small companies like ours. Using Monsanto as an example, they have approximately 22,000 employees – we have 7. Because most organizations in this industry are pretty massive, they do get the lion’s share of attention. That being said, if we were to create a ratio of media attention to company size; ours would be through the roof!
One key reason we likely get more than our fair share of attention is that we’re dealing with apples. When we’re talking about something as popular and iconic as the apple (e.g., “an apple a day”, “American as apple pie”), it’s going to get people emotionally charged. Genetically, our enhancement is relatively minor compared to the majority of crops out there; yet even so, when our petition was available for public comment along with 9 other biotech crops in the U.S., we received around three times as many comments as all 9 of the other petitions combined!
In terms of how all this attention affects us, we can dictate that to some extent. On one hand, we could simply choose to ignore it. The review process is evidence-based (and rightfully so!), meaning we could keep our heads down and let the science speak for itself and not worry about what people are saying. That’s not how we operate, however, as we believe in the benefits and safety far too much to keep quiet. We want to do our best to make sure accurate, evidence-based information is out there to counter-balance all the myths and misinformation. This may mean that we spend more time and resources on education than others might, but it’s too important of an issue not to.
We’ve made a concerted effort so transparency is the core of our identity. We know we have a safe, beneficial product and we’re happy to explain the truth around previously mentioned misconceptions. We make it a priority, no matter how busy things get, to keep active on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, maintain a weekly blog, make timely site updates, respond to every single sincere email we get and invest in delivering presentation such as last year’s TEDx talk. (Embedded below.)
We believe everyone in the science and agricultural industries have a responsibility to help educate the public on the facts of biotechnology. Sometimes that results in more backlash, but it’s worth it.
7) Some scientists state that the anti-GMO backlash has cemented Monsanto’s grip upon the market because only they can afford the regulatory burden, do you find this to be true in your experience? And how does this affect the greater biotechnology field?
Well, we’ve touched on how rigorous the review process is and how much smaller we are than the big industry players, so yes, it is tough for smaller companies to bring a biotech crop to market. It’s challenging to raise funds, produce needed data, spend the resources providing education, and it’s just a much bigger overall risk.
While the regulatory burden is heavier for small biotech companies, I think we’re an example that it’s still possible for the little guys to make it through, but it’s not easy. Not only do you have to successfully develop a fantastic product, but you must be focused, persistent and very patient. There is no rushing the review process, but here we are a decade after first planting Arctic trees and we expect to achieve deregulation in the U.S. later this year.
Even though we’re helping demonstrate it’s possible for small companies to commercialize a biotech crop, the high regulatory burden certainly does affect the industry as a whole. With such an intimidating outlook in terms of high investment, both in time and resources, there will obviously be far less small, entrepreneurial companies than would be ideal. In a field in which innovation should be embraced as much as possible, we are missing out on many potential innovative companies and value-added products because the barriers are so high.
Really, what it comes down to is the regulatory process is (and should be) extremely rigorous, but it is indeed possible for companies that aren’t multinationals to accomplish commercialization. Ideally, once biotech crops add further to their exemplary track record of safety and benefits and the scientific tools continue to improve; these barriers will gradually be lessened.
8) Lastly, what is your relationship to the government and governmental agencies. It has been alleged that agencies like the FDA are in the pocket of big biotech organizations and are willing to look the other way. Do you find any truth in those statements? If not, why not?
If we had to select one word to describe the multiple regulatory bodies we’ve dealt with over the past few years (USDA, APHIS, FDA, CFIA) it would be “thorough”. There’s certainly no looking the other way and nothing casual about the review process. If these government agencies were in the pocket of biotech companies, we wouldn’t still be awaiting deregulation more than ten years after we first developed Arctic apples!
Some people will see that some of the agencies have former members of biotech companies and immediately distrust the whole system; this misses the point. Of course they will have some former industry employees. These companies have thousands and thousands of employees and plenty of them are well-credentialed with first-hand experience in multiple facets of agriculture. In most fields, movement between private and public spheres is common, and most working aged citizens will have at least 10 different jobs before they turn 50. Some overlap is inevitable.
The truth is, you will hear a very wide range of arguments from those who don’t like biotech crops and this is just another one on that list. Luckily, there is more than enough evidence to show that biotech crops are indeed safe and beneficial, including over 600 peer-reviewed studies, around one-third of which are independently funded. The best advice we can give to consumers is to do their own research, but always with a close eye on the credentials and reputability of the sources!
For more information on OSF or Arctic apples, please visit www.arcticapples.com
Neal Carter is the CEO and founder of OSF. Thank you for your time Neal. I am, well, me; a curious fellow trying to make sense of the world (and I just released the 2nd edition of Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World for Kindle). It’s working out so far, and quite fun too.
So, would you eat an Arctic Apple?