Controversial apple captures media spotlight

Summerland grower surprised by the amount of international attention focused on his non-browning genetically modified apple

In the end, whether or not the science behind the non-browning Arctic apples is good may have less to do with its acceptance by government regulatory bodies and the marketplace than the public’s perceptions about biting into a genetically modified food.

Okanagan Specialty Fruit founder and president Neal Carter, a Summerland apple and cherry grower, spent years developing a process using gene silencing to turn off the enzyme in apples that causes them to turn brown after being cut.  He’s currently seeking regulatory approval in both the U.S. and Canada to start marketing the non-browning varieties of Golden and Granny apples under the Arctic label.

The apples, which may be the first GMO food directly marketed to consumers, has propelled Carter into the international spotlight as the controversy over the apples is discussed by media outlets of every description.

“We always knew it would be somewhat controversial. But did we know it was going to get this much media attention? I don’t know that we really expected that,” said Carter. “In the last couple of years as it (the marketability of the apples) has come closer, we did know that mainstream press was going to be interested. Then with social media, and all the people with news websites, there is a lot of opportunity for a lot of stuff to get written.”

Though he is concerned about the challenge of working against what he calls “a proliferation of pseudo science,” Carter is taking the cliché “any press is good press” to heart.

“There is some good, some bad, some in the middle, but it is all educating the world about what we are up to, so that is good,” said Carter. “At the end of the day, an Arctic apple is just an apple. It’s an apple that has all the same proteins as apples, it has all the nutritional composition of apples, it’s just an apple. People sure like to make it seem that it is a lot more than that.

“It is very polarized; there are people that are against and have drawn that line in the sand, and no matter how much educating we do, we are never going to convince them.”

Many people, even inside the fruit industry, Carter said, question the need for a non-browning apple. The  B.C. Fruit Growers Association and the U.S. Apple Association have both spoken out against the apples, though their concern is not about the science, but rather that a genetically modified apple would harm public perception of all apples as a healthy fruit.

However, Carter thinks that he is winning the battle for public perception, citing the benefits for the grower, the fruit packer, retailer and consumer of an apple that doesn’t turn brown when bruised, bitten or cut.

“If anything, we think that things are going better than we expected on that front,” said Carter. “We have an awful lot of people interested in this product. A lot of very big companies and major players in the food services business.”