Gene-altered apple tested in Washington state

An inspection of an orchard of experimental, genetically modified apples in central Washington last year turned up a troubling finding – gene-altered trees flowering less than 100 feet from conventional apple trees.

The grower, Gebbers Farms of Brewster, Wash., previously had been cited for conducting a field trial too near conventional apples, failing to keep good records and making no effort to keep animals away from the plot.

So last November, the federal Animal Plant Health Inspection Service slapped Gebbers with a civil penalty of $19,250 for failing to comply with rules governing field trials of genetically modified crops.

The apple experiment, one of just a handful in the United States, drew extra scrutiny because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering legalizing genetically modified "non-browning apples."

The prospect of gene-altered apples entering the market is a worry in Washington's $2.5 billion apple industry amid fears that consumers will reject tinkering with the genes of a fruit that stands as a symbol of healthy eating.

Until now, the location of the experimental apple plot in Washington – which Gebbers says was abandoned this year – had not been publicly known. Details of Gebbers' field trials and hundreds of inspections of field trials with genetically modified plants were obtained by Hearst under Freedom of Information laws.

The 'Artic Apple'
APHIS is in the final stages of considering a petition by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, Inc., of Summerland, British Columbia, to market the so-called Arctic Apple in the United States without restrictions. The company has yet to win approval in Canada.

Neal Carter, president and founder of Okanagan, said in an interview in early August that he was told by APHIS that he will win approval of his genetically modified Arctic Apple "in one or two months" and that he expects Canada to follow suit this year. He said he was so confident approval that he cancelled plans for a field trial this year in Virginia.

Department of Agriculture officials said Carter has not been told that Okanagan's approval is imminent.

Records show that an entity headed by Jennifer Armen, Okanagan's director of marketing and sales and a United States citizen, was issued permits this year for apple field trials at undisclosed locations in Washington state and New York.

Okanagan says it has engineered its non-browning apple by inserting genes that, in effect, turn off the enzymes in apples that create brown pigments when mixed with oxygen.

"The bottom line is convenience," Carter said. "It's really the fact that people want more convenience, and a whole apple represents too big of a commitment."

Schlect says some Washington apple-growers are aggressive about new technology and but that many others are unlikely to be keen on the marketing risks of engineered apples.

In New York, a distant second to Washington in apple production, apple industry leaders are sounding alarms.

"It doesn't seem beneficial to open up this wave of controversy in the apple industry," said James Allen, who represents 700 New York Apple growers as president and CEO of the New York Apple Association.

"If this GMO apple solved other major issues, like eliminating disease or insect damage or offering a real benefit to consumers, then I think we'd feel differently. We don't think that protecting an apple so that it will brown at a much lower rate has benefit."

New York apple grower Peter Ten Eyck likens sliced apples to "pre-chewed food," adding: "If this is viewed as a gain for the grower but a pain for the consumer, it's never going to go."

Despite overwhelming opposition in nearly 7,000 public comments, APHIS declared a year ago that its preferred alternative is granting the company the "non-regulated status" that it is seeking. In an environmental assessment, the agency observed that its authority in the matter is limited to determining whether the engineered apple could pose a plant pest risk. APHIS concluded that it doesn't.

Favourable disposition toward genetically engineered apples didn't prevent APHIS from imposing a penalty on Gebbers Farms, of Brewster, Wash., for growing its engineered apples too near conventional varieties – a violation that poses threats of outcrossing.

Gebbers Farms, which operates on 5,000 acres at the base of the Cascade Range, claims to have one of the largest contiguous apple orchards in the world.

Bob Grandy, director of food safety, said his company ended the test trial earlier this year. He declined to discuss the results of the field trials or the merits of the non-browning apple.

But Okanagan's Neal Carter had this to say about critics: "We know there are people who are detractors and aren't keen on genetically modified food. They don't have to eat genetically modified food. They don't have to eat Arctic Apples."


Publication date:


Receive the daily newsletter in your email for free | Click here

Other news in this sector:

© 2019

Sign up for our daily Newsletter and stay up to date with all the latest news!

Subscribe I am already a subscriber