Will you know it when you see it at the grocery store?
The Arctic Golden apple, the first genetically modified apple available to consumers, is making its way to grocery store shelves. I’m an apple loyalist—I pack one as an after-lunch snack nearly every day of the week. So I jumped at the chance to sample this new version of the fruit at a fall event hosted by the environmental technology think tank the Breakthrough Institute in San Francisco. The apple was crisp and mildly sweet, and pretty much tasted to me like any normal Golden Delicious apple. But there was one difference: When I let a slice sit on my plate for half an hour, it never turned brown.
The apple is the handiwork of Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., a company based in Canada with orchards in Washington. Since receiving approval from the US Department of Agriculture in 2015, the company has been finessing several genetically engineered apples: The Arctic Golden has arrived at select grocery stores around the Midwest (though Okanagan wouldn’t specify which stores), and the Arctic Granny and the Arctic Fuji are in the works.
Okanagan achieves this non-browning effect through a process called gene silencing. After creating apple genes that produce less polyphenol oxidase (PPO), the enzyme that causes browning, scientists grow small plantlets in a lab until they can be micro-grafted to apple trees and planted in an orchard. The resulting fruit has flesh that doesn’t turn a muddy color when exposed to oxygen.
Why go through all this trouble to change the color of the fruit? The Arctic’s non-browning properties mean it can be sold pre-sliced, which the company says makes it more appealing as a snack food for kids. And unlike other prepackaged apple slices, “our non-browning sliced apples are preservative free, avoiding negative flavor and aroma impacts of anti-browning treatments,” Okanagan President Neal Carter told me.
And if the apples stay white, we’re less likely to toss them out, according to the Breakthrough Institute, which is helping promote the fruit: “By eliminating superficial bruising and browning, the Arctic Apple holds the potential to dramatically reduce consumer food waste once it enters the market.” Food makes up the largest share of waste at municipal landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Around the world, almost half of all fruits and vegetables are wasted every year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, and that includes a startling 3.7 trillion apples.