Humans are a visually driven species, now more than ever. The unfortunate result of this has implications through numerous parts of our society, including the food we eat. According to a National Geographic article, “How Ugly Fruits and Vegetables Can Help Solve World Hunger”, 27.5% of all fruits in North America are thrown away either by distributors or consumers at home before they can be eaten, often due to the fruit being damaged or “ugly”. Arctic Apples, a creation of Okanagan Specialty Fruits in Canada, hopes to keep their apples from being discarded due to ugliness through a genetically modified trait they added in- “non-browning” of their apples.
Scientific American explains that apple browning occurs when an apple is sliced into or bruised it introduces oxygen into the cells that activates enzymes called polyphenol oxidase or PPO enzymes in their chloroplasts. These enzymes rapidly oxidize phenolic compounds into something called o-quinones that produce the browning by reacting to form amino acids (“Why do apple slices turn brown after being cut”). It is that browning, resulting from bruising during picking, transportation, and handling, which often has distributors trashing apples without giving them a chance. Then at the home, when a consumer cuts into the apple the browning may be enough to cause them to trash the apple themselves, and it is these two phenomena that led to the introduction of the Arctic Apples that are trying to avoid the fate that befalls so many others altogether.
The way Arctic Apples were created is simple, based on the information Okanagan Specialty Fruits provides on its website. By modifying four specific apple genes in a petri dish the company was able to silence the ability of the apple to produce PPO, which means that when the apple is bruised or sliced and oxygen is introduced there is very little to no ability of the apple to go through the process that leads its browning. With the successful application of the genetic modification the company has developed apple trees which it is planting to grow more of their Arctic Apples to put on the market.
On the website again, the question is answered about whether PPO and the action of browning serves any purpose for apples naturally. The website states that in tomatoes the high amount of PPO is used defensively to protect the fruit from pests, but given that apples produce comparatively less PPO the company theorises that it is just a left over artifact of its development. For its part, the earlier Scientific American article states that brown coloration we are used to and in fact desire- in our teas, coffee, and cocoa- are the product of the PPO process as well.
A Cnet article, “Non-browning apples may be on store shelve soon(ish)” reports that the entire process of creating the Arctic Apples and putting them through the rigorous testing standards to be allowed in store shelves took over ten years. However, even given all that work there could still be many more years until the apples are widely released, and in 2016 the apples are being tried out in test markets to assess viability.
Despite the seeming simplicity of the engineering involved in Arctic Apples, there is still backlash against the fruit. An EcoWatch article, “3 Companies Say No to GMO”, states that Wendy’s, McDonalds, and Gerber have all said they don’t plan on using any Arctic Apples in their apple slice meal options. Even on their website there are dozens of comments going back and forth about the danger of cross pollination of the apples with non-modified trees and whether they present any danger to human consumption or other use. Only time will tell whether Arctic Apples can help to dramatically reduce food waste as advertised.
Friends of the Earth. (2015). 3 Companies Say ‘No’ to GMO Arctic Apples. EcoWatch. Kooser, A. (2015). Non-browning apples may be on store shelves soon(ish). CNet.
Okanagan Specialty Fruits. (2016). How’d we “make” a nonbrowning apple? Arctic Apples.
Royte, E. (2016). How ‘Ugly’ Fruits and Vegetables Can Help Solve World Hunger. National Geographic.
Scientific American. (2007). Why do apple slices turn brown after being cut? Scientific American.