The growth, sale and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has become an incredibly controversial practise. With dozens of arguments for and against the tampering of crops’ genetic codes, many find it hard to know where to draw the line on biotechnological engineering.

Alternatively, the problems that could be solved by tailored food genes are limitless, and genetic modification of food products has the potential to change the world as we know it.

The Arctic Apple, on sale in the US from Canadian company Okanagan Speciality Fruits, is a genetically modified (GM) apple that doesn’t brown when sliced or bruised. President of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Neal Carter discusses the product’s creation, and developing opinions of GM products in the US marketplace.

Elliot Gardner: So how did you develop a non-browning apple?

Neal Carter: It’s all done through genetic engineering – we’ve used the apple’s own genes to turn off the reaction. The specific gene is called polyphenal oxidase (PPO) and it’s an enzyme that in Arctic Apples more or less doesn’t exist any longer. Its 95+% turned off, so an Arctic Apple is basically a non-browning apple.

EG: How have you managed to ‘turn off’ the gene?

NC: It’s not simple! In lay terms, what we have done is identify the PPO enzyme, isolate the DNA from that enzyme, and then reinsert it back into the apple genome, so that means you essentially have two copies of this DNA segment. What that does is create a gene silencing effect. When the apple sees this extra copy of the DNA associated with the browning gene it figures that something isn’t right, and the enzyme is chopped up. The whole plan and strategy here is to harness the plant’s own self-defence mechanism to turn off the gene.

EG: Is there still a stigma in the US about using or consuming GM products?

NC: It’s a controversial topic, no doubt about it. But it’s only a very vocal minority of people who are actively against GM crops, and we will likely never convert those people, but there are many people who are either neutral, or who don’t know much about them at all, so we have a significant undertaking ahead of us as we educate consumers around this product.

What we do see is that at the end of the day, the apple sells itself. When people get a chance to see it and experience it, and hear ‘we’ve used an apple gene to turn off an apple gene’ people are alright with that.

The GM stigma isn’t really something we see as a huge impediment to the growth or market potential of our product. In years past we battled this a lot, we even did outreach through the apple industry itself as we were trying to educate the industry what this product was and the value proposition of it, but now it’s really a different conversation.

Most of our outreach now is to people who are actually excited about the product, or have already had a chance to experience it and who want better access to it. We like to think that in the future, with more education and outreach, there will be a broader acceptance of GM crops, as right now a lot of the pushback is people not really understanding what the technology is doing and how it works.

EG: Is it difficult to expand to other countries and jurisdictions with different policies regarding genetically modified organisms?

NC: Clearly policy is a constraint to expansion. At this time our business model is very much a North American model and we don’t feel pressured to expand, but there are also countries in Latin America, as well as regions such as China, Australia, and South Africa, that have biotech crop regulatory frameworks that may allow us to succeed in those jurisdictions. Europe is of course the outlier in that, and we would have some challenges getting approval there, but at this stage we don’t really have any plans to pursue European regulatory approval.

There are also quarantine issues to overcome, as well as regulatory constraints. You have to work through all these things country by country, but we’re very excited by the prospect.

EG: Is having such a tangible attribute demonstrating genetically modification a good or bad thing for combatting stigma?

NC: I believe that for the most part people know of and have experienced an apple going brown, and it’s not something they like. So when you’re explaining it to them, and the fact that you’re being transparent about what you’re doing, they appreciate that.

When we get in front of an audience at an event or an expo, often people walk in thinking it is something bad, and they leave either neutral or thinking ‘hey I want to try this’. We’ve had that conversation just so many times, where the first part of the conversation tracks negatively, but as they start learning more they start to realise it’s not so scary. It’s a very cool dynamic to be a part of.

EG: Do you think any stigma around GM is going to stick around or will it fade away with time?

NC: Well there are environmental NGO groups that rotate between different topics and subjects. I don’t think it’s going to go away, but it’ll come up to the forefront and fade away as they realise the controversy doesn’t generate revenue and interest, and they’ll move on to climate change and such.

It’s an unfortunate situation, but I do think that a product like the Arctic Apple can change the conversation. It’s something that they can hold in their hand, it’s something tangible. It’s not like BT cotton that makes their jeans cheaper, it offers perspective on how people perceive GM crops.

I think GM goods are treated as one and the same. It’s pretty hard to differentiate between the use of biotechnology for one product as opposed to another, but I wouldn’t want to either.