Summerland grower snares award

Neal Carter of Okanagan Specialty Fruits wins Gold Leaf Award for his Arctic Apples, genetically modified so they won't brown

Neal Carter

Neal Carter

Summerland orchardist Neal Carter is a busy man these days. Not only is he out among his trees doing the usual spring work, he’s also spent the last couple of weeks preparing for the 2013 Bio International Convention, where last week he was presented with a Gold Leaf Award.

“It’s spring and we’re grafting, trying to finish pruning, mowing, pruning, getting the planting blocks ready and then all the Okanagan Specialty Fruits stuff on top of that, it’s pretty crazy,” said Carter, whose company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, has developed a method to switch off the gene that causes apples to turn brown when cut, using molecular biology techniques.

BIOTE Canada sponsors the Gold Leaf Awards, which honour companies and individuals that have made significant contributions to the development of Canada’s biotech industry. OSF has been named a winner in the early stage agriculture category, recognizing the potential market impact of their  Arctic Golden Gala and Arctic Granny apples, which are currently under review by regulators in both the U.S. and Canada.

The reviews in both countries are entering final stages, and Carter is hopeful that he will have approval to begin marketing the apples by the end of 2013.

It’s been a long road since OSF began work on the apples in the early 2000s, but it’s one that has focused international attention on the small Summerland company, which now includes the Gold Leaf Award.

“It’s really great for us to have the recognition after so many years of work, it’s nice to get, makes you feel you are doing something right,” said Carter, who has been speaking at one or two meetings a month for the last couple of years, and welcoming delegations from all of the main fruit growing areas of the world. “There is a lot of interest in the techniques and technology we are using. Even if it is not specifically the non-browning trait, but the whole package, how we can modify traits through molecular approaches.”

The introduction of the non-browning apples hasn’t been without controversy, however, including a resolution from the B.C. Fruit Growers Association against the introduction of genetically modified fruit, which they feel could harm the province’s reputation as a producer of high-quality, healthy fruit.

“That’s really part of the educational challenge we have with this product. People think the worst immediately, and they don’t really give you time to explain it,” said Carter. “It’s a very innocuous use of molecular biology techniques. All we have done is target 800 base pairs out of 750 million and turned those off. It’s very specific and the rest of it is just exactly the apple people have always enjoyed.”

Carter said not only do the non-browning apples retain their nutritional value longer, benefiting growers, packers and retailers by reducing food waste and shrinkage, there is an opportunity to increase the apple market in the fresh-cut fruit industry, where his Arctic Apple varieties will retain their fresh appearance longer.

The Gold Leaf Award was presented last week at the Bio International Convention in Chicago, where Carter was also scheduled to deliver two presentations: “Challenges and Opportunities for Small Companies in AgBiotech: Collaborating and Competing with the Majors” and “Agricultural Biotechnology: Feeding a Hungry Planet and Saving Lives.”