What do you think of those never-brown GMO apples?

apples_greenThe first genetically engineered apple, altered so that when it is cut it doesn’t turn brown, is headed for grocery stores in the Midwest this month. Known as the Arctic Apple, a version of the popular Golden Delicious, is one of the first GMO products to be marketed directly to consumers, not at farmers.

“The rapid expansion of the fresh-cut industry — bagged carrots, ready-made salads — has led to explosive growth of fresh cut produce,” said Neal Carter, president of the company responsible for creating the Arctic Apple. “I can cut this up for my kid’s lunch box … and it doesn’t go brown and they’ll actually eat it.”

A recent article explains that the first genetically engineered crops were global commodities like corn, soybeans and cotton. They were “transgenic,” meaning they were resistant to pesticides or insects after scientists transferred new DNA into the plants. In contrast, new crops like the Arctic Apple are “cisgenic,” meaning scientists work within a plant species’ own genome.

The Arctic Apple uses a technology called RNA interference, sometimes called gene silencing. The target is the gene in the apple that controls production of the enzyme that makes it turn brown. When scientists add an extra strand of RNA, that gene is effectively switched off, or silenced.

“We’re basically down-regulating a gene that’s already within that apple,” Sally Mackenzie, a plant geneticist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said in the article. “So I see that as entirely different. And I think it’s important for the average consumer to recognize technologies have moved on.”

Advances like gene silencing and other gene editing methods, like CRISPR technology, make biotech plant-breeding cheaper and more precise than the first generation of genetically engineered crops. New technologies are also less expensive for companies when it comes to federal regulations, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration require fewer costly tests.

In addition, the article explains engineered plants that don’t introduce new genes don’t face as many regulatory hurdles. Groups critical of GMO technology want to see stronger regulations in order to evaluate potential long-term impacts of biotech crops on health and the environment. Federal agencies are reviewing their rules around GMOs to catch up with the technology.

Under the current regulatory structure, however, it is more economically viable, Mackenzie said, for smaller biotech companies to market their own innovations.

“You’re going to see more and more traits coming out that are really consumer friendly, designed to respond to consumer demand,” she added.

While the Arctic Apple will be one of the first GMOs to reach consumers directly, it is not the only one. A virus-resistant rainbow papaya is already on the shelf and so is a bruise-resistant russet, called the Innate potato. Furthermore, a fruit company has approval for a pink pineapple — engineered to carry more lycopene, an antioxidant that supports the body’s defense system.

So how will you know what crops are GMOs and what ones are not next time you are at the store? Well, according to the article it might not be all that easy — unless you know what to look for. GMOs like the Arctic Apple will have a tell-tale snowflake logo, and a QR code that can be scanned with a smartphone to reach a website with information about the science. That fits within the framework of a GMO labeling law passed by Congress last year, but it makes genetic engineering in food less obvious than many consumer groups have called for.

The vast majority of consumers support clear labels on foods that contain GMO ingredients, just as the vast majority of scientists agree that they are safe to eat.

“Transparency is what everything is about,” said Joan Driggs, editorial director of Progressive Grocer, which covers the grocery business. “Any retailer or manufacturer has to be transparent with their customer.”

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