On a cloudless September morning, the world’s most infamous apple farmer sat down at a table and carved into a $5 million Golden Delicious.
Harvest had arrived early here in the verdant Okanagan Valley, 50 miles north of the British Columbia border, and fat, shiny apples were practically tumbling off their branches. But the apple Neal Carter was neatly slicing into here on his awning-covered, plant-lined patio wasn’t one of the ones his family orchard sells to distributors around the world — in fact, it wasn’t one any grocery shopper has encountered before.
This apple had been carefully grown somewhere in Washington state, the result of millions of dollars and two decades of labor. Break apart its unremarkable surface to reveal its flesh, wait long enough, and you’ll see what’s different: It remains pure white. It doesn’t start to brown right after you take a bite and leave it on the kitchen counter. In fact, it doesn’t start to brown until it molds or rots. It doesn’t bruise, either. Through a feat of genetic engineering, Carter’s apples hold on indefinitely to the pearly-white insides that inspired their name — the Arctic.
The Arctic was conceived by Carter’s company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which he runs with his wife, Louisa, and four other full-time employees, newly under the umbrella of a large biotech company that bought it this year. It’s an intended solution to what Carter sees as two interrelated problems: First, millions of pounds of perfectly good apples get dumped every year because they look a little too bruised or brown, the victims of an instinctive human aversion to fruits and vegetables that aren’t smooth, shiny, and symmetrical. And at the same time, North American consumers, accustomed to 100-calorie packs and grab-and-go everything, have developed an impatience for food that can’t be quickly eaten. “An apple’s not convenient enough,” Carter, 58, with reddish hair graying at the temples, told me. “That’s the truth. The whole apple is too much of a commitment in today’s world.”
Taken together, these two trends mean that while apple consumption has flatlined in the United States for decades, a staggering amount of apples go wasted. That’s an obvious problem for apple farmers, but it’s also a problem for an increasingly crowded world, and a nation in which only 13% of Americans eat their recommended daily servings of fruit. The way Carter sees it, the Arctic is a solution to all that: nutritious, attractive, always ready to eat, sliced, dried, juiced, whole. Natural.
It’s an innocuous-enough-sounding answer to a very real question, presented by an eminently likable guy running a small family business. But the race to create the world’s most convenient apple — a race that fundamentally blurs the distinction between natural and unnatural — won’t be won without a fight, and getting to the Arctic was far from easy. Browning is a natural and common mechanism in fruit, one that has evolved over millennia; counteracting it isn’t exactly like flipping a switch. And even if the science had been simple, Carter would still have had to contend with forces arguably stronger: a vocal movement against genetically modified organisms in general and the Arctic in particular, and a slew of competitors also hoping to make the apple more attractive to consumers. All of this was made harder by his total budget of roughly $5 million for the whole project, a tiny fraction of what biotech-food giants would spend on a single crop.
Even though there’s no evidence that the Arctic is unsafe for consumption — and leading scientific bodies and loads of studies have concluded that genetically modified foods are as safe as conventionally bred foods — will people want to eat an apple they know is engineered not to brown? Will people accept food visibly changed by technology? Up until now, genetic engineering’s benefits may have seemed abstract to the average consumer. Though GM corn, soybean, and canola make their way into animal feed and all kinds of processed foods, only small amounts of a few such crops (papaya, sweet corn, zucchini, squash) are actually eaten directly by humans. So while many people eat genetically modified foods all the time, they’re rarely forced to look at them, to really consider the engineering that went into giving their food the properties it has.
The Arctic will change that. If consumers do embrace Carter’s invention, it’ll be an indication that they may also be ready for other kinds of GM foods in the works, like heart-healthy purple tomatoes and cancer-fighting pink pineapples. If they don’t, it’ll be 19 years of work and millions of dollars down the drain for a product that consumers are afraid to buy.
The Arctic won approval in the U.S. and Canada this spring, but it won’t roll into supermarkets for a few years. So I drove to British Columbia to be among the first people in the world to try one. My host smashed an Arctic Golden Delicious against its regular counterpart, carved them into identical pieces, and waited.
In the mid-'70s — long before the Arctic and the outcry against it — Carter took a year off from the University of British Columbia to travel with his brother around rural parts of the developing world. In Egypt, Carter watched workers use crude machines to scoop water out of the Nile and pour it into an irrigation ditch. That’s a lot of work, he thought. Don’t these guys know there’s a pump?
The experience would spark in him a lifelong interest in solving world problems with agricultural ingenuity. He returned home, daunted at the challenges farmers face in producing food for a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. The crisis of insufficient and unequally distributed food and water is becoming acute since most of the world’s available farmable land is already being farmed, and rivers, lakes, and inland seas are disappearing. Soils are eroding. Climate change is wreaking havoc on temperatures and rainfall patterns.
Whether genetically modified crops have improved yields is debatable, but Carter and other experts believe they can be a — even if not the — solution. And they see genetic engineering as the latest iteration of a process that started thousands of years ago, when farmers began selectively breeding plants and animals for traits such as faster growth or bigger seeds. Apples in particular have been transformed dramatically by commercial cultivation and serendipitous acts of nature over the last two millennia. The apples grocery store shoppers pluck off shelves in 2015 are vastly different from the ones first discovered in Kazakhstan, or even the ones grown by Johnny Appleseed in the 19th century.
“Can we afford to not embrace a life-saving technology like agricultural biotechnology?” Carter asked in a 2012 TEDx Talk. Plant genomics research “is leading us to be able to develop new crops that meet real-world problems like drought, saline soils, poor water quality, and many, many more … This is a huge challenge and biotech crops are leading the way and allowing us to address it.”
In 1982, Carter graduated with a bio-resource engineering degree and married Louisa, a forestry major. He joined Agrodev, an international agricultural development company that helps farmers adopt new technologies and build infrastructure. The two eventually settled in Summerland, a tiny, lakeside British Columbia town filled with wineries, and started their own orchard. By 1995, Agrodev was thinking about agricultural technologies of its own, so Carter went looking for ideas at the government-run Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland. There he met David Lane, a cherry and apple breeder newly in charge of crop biotechnology projects.
Lane had an idea on his mind. A team of Australian scientists had recently identified the biological process behind browning in potatoes, and Lane suspected the same force was at work in apples. In intact apple cells, enzymes called polyphenol oxidases, or PPO, stay separate from compounds called phenols. But as soon as a knife rips through the skin, as soon as air starts rushing in, the cell walls break down, the compounds mix, and the flesh deepens into shades of caramel. (This ancient process evolved so the flesh would release the seeds and allow them to propagate, Amit Dhingra, a Washington State University horticultural genomicist, told me.)
If there were a way to tone down PPO, Lane thought, it could plausibly slow or stop the browning process. No one knew how to do this, but Carter wanted to try. “If you’re a grower, you would understand immediately the amount of apples that are tossed out because of superficial scuff marks,” he said. “So there’s a huge cost to the grower, packer, shipper, retailer, processor, all the way down the value chain, and then, ultimately, I think most consumers understand the ‘yuck’ factor around apples going brown.”
They certainly do. In the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, more fruits and vegetables are lost or wasted than consumed across the supply chain, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. A study in the Journal of Consumer Affairs estimated that $15 billion in fresh and processed fruit was lost from the U.S. food supply in 2008 — about $9 billion at the consumer level and the rest at the retail level. Apples, the second-most consumed fresh fruit in the U.S. behind bananas, make up a good chunk of that waste: an estimated 1.3 billion pounds every year, or a $1.4 billion loss, with a sizable yet unknown portion due to off-coloring or soft spots.
Dave Henze of Holtzinger Fruit Company, which packs and ships apples from mostly family-owned and independent growers in Washington, estimates that bruising and browning force him to dump about 5% of his supply, or 2 million pounds, every year. “A lot of apples aren’t packed because maybe they don’t have the right shape or right color, but they’re a perfectly good eating apple,” he said. Some get juiced or sliced, but “there’s a huge amount of food that is thrown away or not used.”
Soon after Carter and Lane met, Agrodev lost interest in potato-browning. But Carter wouldn’t give up on apples. He licensed the Australian scientists’ technology, raised money from family and friends, got a grant from the Canadian government, and rented lab space in the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre. Now, looking back on November 1996, Carter can only describe himself as “naïve as hell.”
“David [Lane] made it all sound like it was going to be a lot easier than it was,” he recalled. “Classic scientist, right? ‘Oh yeah, two years and all this is done.’”
Long before the genetically engineered apple, there was a genetically engineered tomato. The Flavr Savr ripened more slowly, lasted longer, and in 1994, became the first commercially grown food with a genetic change that U.S. customers could see and feel. Since then, GMOs — mostly designed by agricultural behemoths like Monsanto and beloved by farmers for their ability to fight off pests, diseases, and drought in the field — have quickly and aggressively entered our food supply. Today, about 90% of all corn, soybeans, and cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.
But as GMOs have grown pervasive, their opposition has become organized and vocal. Monsanto in particular became a high-profile symbol when it engineered some of its first crops to resist a weed killer it also made, which critics say forced farmers to buy its products, endangered the environment, and ultimately didn’t solve the problem it promised to solve: Weeds are now becoming immune to that weed killer. Activists stage worldwide rallies against Monsanto and protest in stores believed to carry its products. In 1999, scientists developed “Golden Rice” to counter vitamin A deficiency, which causes blindness in up to half a million children in developing countries every year. Despite studies finding that the nutrient-rich rice is safe and boosts health, activists have destroyed a field trial in the Philippines, filed to block all field tests and feeding studies, and helped keep it off the market 16 years after its invention. In 2005, two organic food retailers launched the Non-GMO Project, which has gone on to label nearly 35,000 products as “GMO-free.” And in 2012, Canadian researchers, in the face of protests, gave up on genetically modifying pigs to produce less environmentally harmful manure.
Buoyed partly by a rising appetite, at least in certain circles, for food perceived or marketed as “natural” — locally grown, minimally processed, organic — supermarkets and manufacturers including Ben & Jerry’s, Whole Foods, General Mills, and Chipotle have banned or restricted GMOs. State and national legislators have passed or tried to pass GMO-labeling laws; Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont all require some form of GMO labeling. Earlier this year, the White House announced it would re-evaluate its regulatory process for bioengineered crops.
As the GMO debate raged on, Carter and his handful of scientists plugged away. They dabbled in peaches, apricots, cherries, and pears, but ultimately, their budget forced them to focus on just two Arctic varieties, one sweet and the other tart: the Golden Delicious and Granny Smith. “Neal never gave up, ever,” Louisa said.
Until its sale, Okanagan Specialty Fruits was a tiny operation, unlike the mega-corporations that spend an estimated $136 million on developing and getting approval for just one GMO. And in many ways, it still is. Headquarters is essentially the Carters’ home, where family and work are indistinguishable. Over lunch, I sat with Louisa, 57, the co-founder and chief financial officer, and Joel, their 28-year-old son who helps part-time, in their kitchen as they chatted about the work left to do and an upcoming wedding. Apple-shaped magnets pinned family photos to the fridge, next to biotech-themed magnetic poetry (“agriculture and genetically modified biotechnology is exciting research”) and a political cartoon poking fun at the Arctic. A running tally of the harvest was scribbled on the chalkboard near the home office where Carter can be found when not in the fields. Carter estimates he’s worked 60 to 80 hours a week for the last 20 years. “Other people might say, ‘If you work out the net-present value of what we put in and what’s going on, we better quit,’” Lane said. “But not Neal.”
Petunias set Carter’s breakthrough in motion.
In the late 1980s, a biologist tried to darken purple petunias with an extra copy of the pigmentation gene — but the flowers bloomed white. Something had made the genes cancel, rather than enhance, each other.
The underlying biology, unlocked by Nobel Prize–winning scientists in 1998, involves how genes are regulated in plants and animals. Messenger RNA instructs the cell to create proteins, the building blocks of tissues and organs. It turns out there’s a natural mechanism — RNA interference, as it’s called — that can silence those instruction-carrying molecules. Carter’s team made copies of the browning-controlling genes, slightly modified such that they would trigger RNA interference, and stuck them into the apple genome. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the extra set of genes ultimately prevents the original genes from being expressed.
It’s an elegant solution. But the science wasn’t always clear, and the company ditched hundreds of test fruit before the Arctic Golden Delicious, No. 743, and the Arctic Granny Smith, No. 784, in 2004. Carter says Arctics can last up to four weeks with refrigeration, though they still mold and decay eventually. In September, he and I were munching slices of apples that’d been picked the previous fall, cut in January, dried, and never refrigerated. He showed off photos of Arctics ground into neon-bright juices and smoothies.
Carter talks about farming the way kindergarten teachers talk about graduation day. “You see something grow all season long — and boom, there it is, a bin full of apples heading to be packed and off to the marketplace,” he told me. “You get a sense you’re contributing.”
Here on his orchard, clad in a blue fleece and square glasses, Carter looks and acts more like an earnest dad than a mad scientist. But if anything can make a Bond villain out of an apple farmer, it might be the pitched, protracted, and at times deeply personal battle over GMOs. As the Carters planted trees and tinkered with seeds, they increasingly bumped up against a movement that was suspicious not just of GMOs, but of the Arctic in particular.
In 1999, protesters chopped down 652 of the Carters’ personal, non-Arctic trees. In 2006, the Carters changed the name from Okanagan Biotechnology Inc. to Okanagan Specialty Fruits in anticipation of criticism (“We realized the ‘biotech’ handle was a tough one,” Carter said). But the vitriol was unleashed in full view when the company submitted requests to four regulatory agencies in the U.S. and Canada to approve the apple for sale.
“This is ridiculous. Fruit is supposed to brown and go bad, it is part of life,” read one of more than 178,000 letters, most negative, to the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2012 to 2014. “To change the apple from how it was intended to be could change the way the apple affects us down the road and the harmful effects might not be seen for a couple generations or more.” “Genetically modified food is poison and the biggest threat to our health on this planet! No to GMO apples!!!!!!!” More than 461,000 people also signed anti-Arctic petitions to the USDA in late 2013 and 2014.
Outside the biotech industry’s Chicago convention in 2013, a protester in a gas mask dropped apples into a cart as another tipped it over, yelling, “They put poison on those apples!” Anti-GMO sites disseminated images of apples with syringes and fangs. In a “fact sheet” for the public, Friends of the Earth warned, “From apple pie to baby’s first applesauce and the apple in your child’s lunchbox, apples are a core part of a natural, healthy diet. However, apples are about to become not-so-natural, and consumers, especially parents and other caregivers, may soon want to think twice about that apple a day.” Food and Water Watch warned of danger to the Rosh Hashanah custom of dipping apples in honey. “By next year, something could be sadly amiss with our annual tradition. Our apples could be genetically engineered and our honey could be somewhat endangered.” The U.S. Apple Association’s current stance on the Arctic is that “the choice, very simply, is up to consumers.”
Okanagan Specialty Fruits goes on the offensive by regularly talking to the media, blogging, and answering commenters’ questions. Even in defending its existence to a skeptical public, the company is relentlessly cheerful. “Yesterday we used cookie cutters to make some apple fish, stick those in some blue jello!” Carter joked on Reddit.
But these efforts do little to appease opponents’ criticism. “It’s clever marketing to use the word ‘Arctic’ for white and pure,” Martha Crouch, a biologist and consultant for the anti-GMO group Center for Food Safety, told me. “But in fact … it’s deceptive.”
Now that the apples have been approved, the biggest threat to the Arctic is a consumer boycott, whether formal or informal. “We know it’s not a health concern of any kind,” said Mark Powers, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents the Pacific Northwest fruit tree industry. “It really comes down to perception and marketability.” It’s also unclear whether farmers will want to grow Arctics; they may have problems growing or sending them to countries that restrict GMOs, like parts of the European Union and Japan. Okanagan Specialty Fruits says it’s heard from many interested growers, but won’t name them due to their fear of industry pushback.
Tim Dressel, a fourth-generation apple farmer in New Paltz, New York, told me, “GMO science, despite what a lot of people think, is a really amazing technology … and certainly not something to be afraid of per se. But with the general attitude towards GMOs right now, bringing apples into the mix is not necessarily something we need to do, especially for something that is only strictly a cosmetic issue.”
Indeed, how big a deal is browning, really? “As if this was a huge societal problem that needed to be solved,” Crouch said, laughing. She and her organization argue that all that time and money would be better spent on educating people to stop wasting food and keep produce fresh in old-fashioned ways.
But then again, maybe not. After all, browning and bruising aren’t problems just in apples. In 2008, American retailers and consumers were throwing out 3.7 billion pounds of fresh potatoes a year, a $1.8 billion loss. That spurred J.R. Simplot, one of the nation’s largest privately held companies, to create the Innate potato. Much like the Arctic, the Innate’s bruising-controlling enzyme is turned off. Also much like the Arctic, it's faced protests as it's won regulatory approvals over the last year. But Simplot sensed a need. “The number-one consumer complaint for fresh potatoes is bruising,” spokesman Doug Cole told me.
Carter isn’t the only one working on inventing a more attractive apple: Over the last 15 years, while Okanagan Specialty Fruits was quietly working on the Arctic, sliced, preserved apples turned into a multimillion-dollar industry. And for Carter, that’s a problem.
Sterile, just shy of freezing, and alive with the roar of a hundred machines, the 60,000-square-foot Crunch Pak factory feels like a comically large operating room for apples. Red, green, and gold orbs bob through chutes of water, march into slicing machines, and plop onto conveyor belts in the form of crescent-shaped chunks. Inspectors in masks, gloves, and smocks then send them to their final destinations: laser-perforated plastic bags and lunch trays sold across America.
If the Arctic is gunning to be the most convenient, easiest-to-eat, longest-lasting apple around, Crunch Pak, the nation’s largest provider of sliced apples, seems like a good place to check out the competition. Located in the sunbaked Wenatchee Valley in Central Washington, it chops up 6 million slices a day.
My guide, the friendly and fast-talking Marketing Director Tony Freytag, founded Crunch Pak with two apple growers in 2000. Early pioneers in the apple-slice business, the trio initially thought, “It’s going to be hard enough to sell this idea because people are going to say, ‘It’s just an apple,’” Freytag recalled. “But we saw where convenience was going.”
It was a prescient observation. American apple consumption has dropped off significantly in the last three decades, from an average of 20 pounds per person per year between 1986 and 1991 to just 16 between 2006 and 2011. Meanwhile, other produce transformed into ultra-convenient forms skyrocketed in popularity. In 1986, a California farmer cut up ugly, broken carrots and single-handedly launched the baby carrot craze. Earthbound Farm in California pioneered bagged lettuce in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Apples missed that wave.
Crunch Pak’s apple slices aren’t genetically modified. But they’re not entirely natural, either. Their magic ingredient is NatureSeal, a proprietary powder of calcium salts and vitamin C invented in the late 1990s. Mixed with water and sprayed on produce, it extends the shelf life of sliced fruits for at least three weeks with refrigeration before they start browning. And it’s been a blockbuster: Crunch Pak’s slices have been sold in virtually every major supermarket — Wal-Mart, Kroger, Target, Sam’s Club, Costco, Publix, Safeway, Albertson’s — and fast-food joints like Carl’s Jr., Arby’s, Chick-fil-A, and Denny’s. The privately held company says it racks up in sales in the low nine digits.
The day of my visit was especially busy due to the harvest, so the 800,000 pounds of apples sliced that week were fresh off the fields. But otherwise, Crunch Pak relies on a lot of fruit that was picked up to a year prior, Freytag told me. Harvest happens but once a year, and the industry has devoted almost unbelievable time and effort to stretching out that supply for as long as possible to meet never-ending consumer demand. “The goal is,” Freytag said, “if you eat something in July, it’s going to be just as good as if you ate it in October right after you harvested it.”
A ripening apple takes in oxygen and gives off carbon dioxide. To slow that process, growers and pickers put them in controlled atmosphere storage rooms, the fruit equivalent of hibernation caves, until the time comes to be sliced or shipped to retailers. The temperature is almost freezing, the oxygen severely reduced, the humidity relatively high; a human couldn’t breathe. Even this setup alone can’t feed appetites year-round, which is why retailers import apples from countries like New Zealand and Chile, whose harvest happens during North America’s off-season.
The Crunch Pak factory is to Carter’s farm as Disneyland is to a jungle gym. It is an elaborate and precise operation manned by 900 employees, 24 hours a day, six days a week. Computers and cameras vigilantly monitor every condition, from temperature to humidity to contamination, to spot any risk of spoiling and bruising.
All this chilling, slicing, spraying, bagging, and shipping make the definition of “fresh” a little awkward. “You would never think to go to your refrigerator and slice an apple and cut it up in pieces and put it in a baggie and come back in 10 days and say ‘I’ll have that,’” Freytag admitted. “That’s not a visual that we want.”
Refrigeration and preservatives aside, pre-manufactured slices can seem silly. How hard is eating an apple out of your hand — or slicing it yourself? Isn’t pre-slicing rewarding laziness? “Slicing up apples and putting them in plastic bags to turn them into a fast-food item seems to be going in the wrong direction to me,” Crouch, of the Center for Food Safety, said, “rather than helping people reconnect with whole foods.”
But in some cases, the alternative might be eating little or no fresh fruit at all. When Cornell University researchers visited upstate New York schools, they learned that braces and small mouths aren’t ideal for chomping into whole fruit; teenage girls said doing so was “unattractive,” according to their 2013 study. So they gave fruit slicers to eight elementary schools, and on average they sold 60% more apples. The experiment was repeated at three middle schools, where average daily apple sales went up 71% compared to non-slicing schools. Significantly more students also actually ate the apples, instead of throwing them away. The stark results prodded the Wayne Central School District, which participated in the study, to start offering sliced apples full-time to its 2,300 students.
In a way, a Crunch Pak slice and an Okanagan Arctic are mirror images. The first comes off the tree “natural,” then is subjected to a battery of chemicals and machines designed to make it more palatable. The second grows with its engineering already built in, and then can be eaten plain. But both companies are rivals in the race to make apples convenient and fresh for as long as possible, and both approaches are fundamentally similar: They’re complicated, expensive inventions used by humans to wrest control of nature, united by the underlying principle that rather than adapt American eating habits to the fruit we have, we should adapt the fruit to the eating habits we have.
Back on the Carters’ Summerland patio, I found myself reaching right over the normal, slightly browned Golden Delicious slices to snatch a white Arctic, succumbing to some deep preference for whatever looked freshest, prettiest — and easiest.
“Most people don’t really recognize that fact, but there’s a lot of people who will only eat an apple after it’s sliced,” Carter said, watching me nibble on one slender piece after another. Otherwise, “you’ve got to get that knife out, that cutting board out, slice it up, deal with the core. People say, ‘I’m going to buy grapes or something else I can just pop in my mouth.’ Those are the guys we’re going after.”
You might call the other threat to the Arctic the accidental Arctics. These are a handful of apple varieties, crossbred in recent years, that somehow ended up with lowered PPO. There’s the RubyFrost, the Eden, and the big golden Opal, which is not-so-subtly advertised as a “non-GMO apple” that “naturally doesn’t brown,” and “the first U.S. apple variety to be verified by the Non-GMO Project.” Not surprisingly, Carter isn’t a fan of these newcomers. He doubts they’re actually non-browning. He calls the Opal “not a terribly good eating apple” and points out that his technology can transform any (tasty) variety.
But to those concerned about genetic engineering, these apples may sound like ideal alternatives.
GMO opponents like the fact that non-browning apples such as the Opal were created through the marriage of two familiar fruits — not by a gene-silencing technique like RNA interference, which they worry could change the genes of someone who eats food altered by it.
Those making this argument often cite a 2011 study in Cell Research. A team led by Nanjing University in China reported finding bits of rice RNA in the blood of men, women, and mice, which was surprising: Never before had these types of molecules been found to survive digestion and cross into the bloodstream. Even more alarming, the scientists reported a sign of bodily change and perhaps harm: One molecule appeared to shut down a gene involved in removing unhealthy cholesterol.
The study never mentions GM crops. Nevertheless, activists interpreted it to mean that the same kind of genetic engineering behind the Arctic could allow small RNA molecules to manipulate human gene expression in potentially harmful ways. A dozen environmental and consumer organizations cited the paper in asking corporations like Burger King, Subway, and Baskin Robbins to boycott Arctics. Baby-food maker Gerber, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s responded to say they had no plans to use them.
Yet many biologists derided that reaction as overly cautious at best and alarmist at worst. Attempts at replication of the study showed no more than trace amounts of RNAs in the blood of monkeys, mice, honeybees, and athletes, even after they ate food chock-full of those molecules. Some other, controversial studies argue that small plant RNAs, somewhat similar in function to the ones that suppress browning in the Arctic, may affect various species’ physiology under specific conditions. “Of all the different genetic modification strategies you can use, RNA interference is probably the one that has the potential to be the safest and most specific,” said Kenneth Witwer, a Johns Hopkins University molecular biologist who was among those who failed to replicate the findings, adding, “The weight of the evidence in the field is that this is not a phenomenon we have to worry about.”
Perhaps the more significant point is that no technology is risk-free. Even crossbreeding, the classic agricultural practice, is unpredictable because genes are transferred at random. “If you cross two red apples, you can get some yellow apples just because there’s dominant genes and recessive genes,” said Susan Brown, who leads Cornell University’s apple-breeding program. She recently crossed two breeds, certain she’d get extra flavor. “I ended up with a lot of progeny that tasted like soap.”
In the late 1960s, a research team crossbred the Lenape potato, only to discover it was genetically predisposed to produce a lot of an alkaloid called solanine — a natural defense mechanism that, in large doses, can kill humans. Celery naturally contains psoralens, irritant chemicals that ward off pests and diseases. But grocery store workers have experienced skin rashes after handling celery bred to have increased psoralens.
GMO critics take issue with how the U.S. and Canada evaluate the safety of GMOs for consumption: by the product, not the process by which it’s made. Developers are asked to identify the new genetic traits; new toxins, allergens, or proteins; and nutritional changes. If regulators conclude that food from the new plant variety will be as safe as food from conventionally bred varieties, as in the Arctic’s case, the crop is approved.
It’s true the system is set up to catch established, not unknown, toxins and allergens — and, again, no technology is risk-free. But genetic engineering introduces relatively few proteins compared to other methods of producing new traits. And after two decades, there hasn’t been any credible evidence to suggest that GMOs harm human health.
Okanagan Specialty Fruits likely wouldn’t have existed if not for the Carters’ siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends, like Carter’s former Agrodev boss and local growers — the bulk of the company’s roughly 45 shareholders. But that support came with a unique pressure. “It put some responsibility on my shoulders, because they’re not rich people,” Carter said. When he felt pessimistic at times, he’d suggest that they hold off on investing; they’d respond, “No, no, no, Neal, we trust you; you’re going to get this done,” he recalled.
In the winter and spring, when regulatory approvals seemed all but sure, Carter began to realize that, as much money and effort as his little company had poured into the first 19 years, their resources would almost certainly not be enough to get the Arctic to growers around the world, advertise it, and sell it. He began talking to Intrexon, a $4.5 billion synthetic biology company with an eclectic set of businesses that engineer cow reproductive technologies, fast-growing fish, and disease-curbing mosquitoes. The team hadn’t necessarily been looking to sell, but they realized that doing so could finally reward their investors, some of whom had died over the years. In February, two weeks after the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the Arctic, Intrexon bought Okanagan Specialty Fruits for $41 million.
For an operation that from the start prided itself on being tiny and beholden to no one, the sale to a big biotech corporation seemed like quite a change. “Okanagan Specialty Fruits is a small, grower-led company with just seven employees, which often makes us seem like a small fish in a very big pond,” it blogged in 2013, referring to bioengineered food giants like Monsanto, Syngenta, and Bayer. Two years later, Carter told me that despite the sale, “We still have the same team in place. We’re still doing all the same things.”
Intrexon is not Monsanto. Still, CEO Randal Kirk sees it as building a brighter, more efficient world in which food is either ultra-unique (the Arctic) or ultra-cheap (salmon that grow in half the time). “I don’t think our size or our capital should be counted against us by virtue of those facts alone,” he said in an interview. “I would simply ask people eventually to judge us according to what we do, what we offer. In the case of the Arctic apple, I think everybody who has tried it has liked it, and that encourages us greatly.”
Under Intrexon’s wing, Okanagan Specialty Fruits is beginning to distribute saplings to growers. Next, its scientists are considering using their technology to alter other apple varieties, or turn off browning in pears and cherries, or make peaches resist diseases. The possibilities are many. After all these years in the field, it’s almost time for Carter to think about projects besides the Arctic. But for now, he’s just happy to finally start sending Arctics on their way to grocers, restaurants, and homes. “Does it taste like a GM food?” he asked me outside his house that day, the last slivers of the Arctic still pale in the summer sun. “Really. Can you distinguish it?” And the truth was, no. It tasted sweet, tender, and crisp. It tasted like an apple.
Stephanie M. Lee is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Stephanie M. Lee at email@example.com.
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