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The GMO High-Risk List: Apples

It's fall, which means that apple trees across the Pacific Northwest, where the Non-GMO Project is headquartered, are heavy with […]

The GMO High-Risk List: Apples

It's fall, which means that apple trees across the Pacific Northwest, where the Non-GMO Project is headquartered, are heavy with […]

It's fall, which means that apple trees across the Pacific Northwest, where the Non-GMO Project is headquartered, are heavy with fruit. This is the perfect time and place to appreciate non-GMO apple varieties' variety, abundance and taste.

Since 2022, apples have been considered a high-risk crop under the Non-GMO Project Standard. "High risk" means that GMO versions of a crop or ingredient have become so common in the supply chain that unless a buyer intentionally seeks out non-GMO options, they'd probably end up with the GMO. Because genetically modified versions of high-risk crops are so ubiquitous, high-risk ingredients face special scrutiny to ensure they come from non-GMO sources.

The simple apple's migration to a high-risk crop was driven by one company. Okanagan Specialty Fruit commercialized their GMO Arctic Apple in the U.S. in 2017.

Let's get to know this GMO.

All about Arctic

When apples are cut open or bruised, an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase (PPO) causes the apple's flesh to turn brown. Several DIY methods impede browning, including wrapping apples tightly to reduce oxygen exposure or sprinkling the fruit with lemon juice. The developers of the Arctic Apple took another route. 

Okanagan Specialty Fruits used a biotechnology technique called RNA interference to "silence" the gene that controls the PPO enzyme. With the gene silenced, the apple doesn't release the enzyme and the fruit doesn't turn brown. Non-browning GMO Arctic Apples are currently available in Golden Delicious and Granny Smith varieties, with GMO Gala and Fuji apples in development.

In the past, Arctic Apples have been available to consumers in two forms: as pre-sliced bags or as a dehydrated apple snack called ApBitz. However, it's unclear if the direct-to-consumer market is still active, since these products were by and large out of stock at the time of writing.

Food service venues such as school cafeterias, restaurants and hospitals could be a more fruitful market for GMO apples. Meals are often prepared well before serving, and a non-browning apple would meet an industry need. However, not all food service venues are interested. Fast food restaurants Wendy's and MacDonald's and baby food giant Gerber have all publicly stated they would not use GMO apples in their operations. (MacDonald's also made a similar pledge when the non-browning GMO potato entered the market).

Are Arctic Apples labeled as GMOs?

Regular readers of this blog know that the federal Bioengineered (BE) Food labeling law requiring mandatory labeling of some GMOs came into full effect in January 2022. Arctic Apples are on the USDA's List of Bioengineered Foods, meaning that BE disclosures — which could appear as a logo, written text or a phone number — would be required on Arctic Apples sold directly to consumers through grocery stores or online shopping services. 

However, there's a loophole. The BE labeling law does not require disclosures on bioengineered foods sold or served at food service venues, which are the very places most likely to use non-browning, pre-sliced GMO apples. 

To sum up: The venues where Arctic Apples are most likely to be found don't require labeling, and the stores that would require labeling are currently out of stock. 

A non-GMO alternative

If GMOs don't appeal to you, but the convenience of an apple that won't turn brown does, there is a non-GMO option. The non-browning Opal Apple was created through traditional cross-breeding methods, not biotechnology. It's available in conventionally grown or organic varieties — use the Opal finder to locate a retailer near you that carries them.

Opal is an excellent example of a natural, traditionally cross-bred crop with traits comparable to a GMO. And it's not the only one. Other non-GMO wonder-crops include the naturally blight-resistant potato and the dozens of already-purple tomatoes — proving that GMOs are not necessary or wanted, particularly in natural products. With so many non-GMO options, why would anyone choose GMOs? 

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