With all the attention Arctic® apples have been getting over the past few months, it seems the time is ripe to revisit a core question – why develop nonbrowning apples through biotechnology? Really, though, it’s two questions in one:
1) Why develop nonbrowning apples?
Nonbrowning apples are more convenient and appealing, and can potentially boost consumption, in large part because of their freshcut suitability. There’s also good reason to believe that nonbrowning apples can help reduce waste, and a study from Cornell we often cite shows strong evidence that serving pre-sliced apples to kids can lead to significantly greater consumption and less waste.
Despite this, we sometimes hear that developing nonbrowning apples is a waste of time because people should just learn to eat whole apples or not let browning bother them. Well, similar arguments could be made about whole carrots (or numerous other produce items), yet “baby” carrots doubled carrot consumption, pre-bagged salads are more popular than ever, sales of packaged guacamole has never been higher, to name but a few examples. The point is, not everyone may feel they need nonbrowning apples, but there’s ample research and precedent to suggest they can potentially boost apple consumption and reduce waste, and those are goals everyone should be able to get behind.
2) Why use biotechnology to develop our nonbrowning trait?
So, if we can agree that nonbrowning apples are worthwhile, why use biotechnology rather than conventional breeding?
A recent article in Fresh Plaza titled, “Non-browning apple? We’ve had it for 10 years!” was written by Urs Luder, CEO of the company behind a variety called Greenstar. Luder explains Greenstar’s flesh stays white for 24-48hrs after cutting, and questions “Why would we introduce GMO apples that don’t brown after cutting, when we already have apples with this quality?”
He is not the only one with this viewpoint, as Ralph Broetje, a major apple grower in Washington State, recently stated “There’s no need for a GM apple” that is nonbrowning. Coincidentally, Broetje Orchards produce Opal apples, and upon visiting the variety’s website, the homepage headline informs visitors “This non-GMO apple naturally doesn’t brown…”
Clearly, Luder and Broetje both see the value in nonbrowning apples, as both emphasize the value of this trait in their own varieties. Yet, neither think that Arctic® apples are a good idea…
That’s too bad, because we certainly see the value of Greenstar and Opal apples – we wouldn’t have developed nonbrowning apples ourselves if we didn’t know browning is an issue for consumers! However, we feel that taking a biotech approach offers us clear benefits that conventional breeding doesn’t. Perhaps the biggest one of all is that, while conventionally bred apples may brown more slowly, or less overall than most apples, they are not truly nonbrowning like Arctic® apples. Arctic® apples will not experience enzymatic browning at all, and will only discolor if there is meaningful damage, such as a fungal or bacterial infection.
Another major advantage a biotech approach has over conventional breeding is that the nonbrowning trait can be introduced into existing varieties. We have no doubt that Greenstar and Opal varieties are excellent apples, but what about consumers who prefer Granny Smith, Fuji, or other varieties? Must they choose between their desire for the convenience of low-browning and the desired traits of their personal favorites?
With that said, our intent is not to disparage other ways of developing apples. Conventional breeding and other methods have given everyone a wealth of delicious apple options. There are over 2,500 varieties grown in the U.S. alone, despite only crabapples being native to the country. Our aim is simply to offer consumers more choice. And, the option for consumers to enjoy any of their favorite varieties with the benefit of being truly nonbrowning is a choice we know the majority of apple-eaters will be glad to have!