Biotech with a consumer focus
For many years, supporters of biotech crops have longed for a genetically engineered fruit or vegetable product that delivered a clear benefit consumers could see and taste. A product like that, the biotech backers believed, would go a long way in making consumers comfortable with use of the technology in other crops, like soybeans and corn, and would help blunt anti-GMO activists’ scare tactics.
Now, a company in western Canada is confident it has just that product: the non-browning Arctic apple.
Okanagan Specially Fruit was able to use genetic engineering to “switch off” an enzyme that cause apples to brown once they are sliced, bruised or bit into. Because it doesn’t brown, the company believes the Arctic apple will catch on with consumers, increasing overall apple consumption and reducing food waste.
The key advantage, according to Okanagan Vice President Jennifer Armen, is that the Arctic apple will still maintain the taste and texture that consumers expect even after it is sliced, packaged in a bag, stored in the refrigerator or placed in a lunch bag.
COUNTING ON SLICES
“Kids and everyone will eat more apples and less will be wasted if they are sliced and packaged in a bag,” said Armen, who spoke recently at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in New Orleans. “Apples are a great fruit, but they don’t come naturally in a convenient package.”
After years of regulatory overview, Okanagan has gained approval for sales of several varieties of the Arctic apple in the United States and Canada. The company ran a test market of packaged apple slices in a few supermarkets in the Midwest last summer and now is scaling up its orchards for a major roll out in 2019 and beyond.
Testing has shown that consumers like the fact that the Arctic apples don’t brown after they are sliced, Armen said. And consumers don’t seem particularly concerned that the company used genetic engineering to develop the Arctic apple.
“We told them what we did, how we did it, and the majority of people were pretty receptive,” Armen said. “Ninety percent of the consumers on our test were satisfied with the taste, texture and overall eating experience of the Arctic apple. They really like the packaging and convenience.”
From the beginning, Okanagan has stressed transparency about its process of developing the Arctic apple, Armen said. That’s meant explaining the science behind the apple on the company website, hosting orchard tours for food bloggers and others, and adding a QR code on packaging that will lead consumers to more information.
That transparency won’t change the minds of hardcore anti-biotech activists, but it does help reassure everyday consumers, Armen said. “Consumers who can see and taste the benefits are more likely to be swayed in this issue,” she said. “There really is a movable middle.”
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