Farmers and others will get a good gauge on American consumer acceptance of biotech crops this year as Canada-based Okanagan Specialty Fruits begins testing its new Arctic Apple in supermarkets.

The new apple, which has been genetically modified to keep its color and not turn brown after being cut, will be test marketed in 10 Midwestern supermarkets beginning this month. If the Arctic Apple is a hit with consumers, it could help pave the way for other genetically modified fruits and vegetables, according to a new report by RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness group.

That, in turn, could provide more certainty for corn and soybean growers in Iowa and around the Midwest. Health agencies worldwide have stressed that biotech crops are safe. But farmers worry that they could still lose access to the technology if American consumers remain lukewarm about biotech crops and food manufactures resist buying them.

A successful rollout of the Arctic Apple could also open more opportunities to raise specialty corn and soybeans, like the high-oleic soybeans. Those crops offer advantages for consumers and premium prices for farmers.

Clear consumer benefits

The key to the potential success of the Arctic Apple is that it has very clear — and very noticeable — benefits for a consumer, said Roland Fumasi, a fruit and vegetable analyst with RaboRearch.

Almost all of the biotech crops, to date, have focused on on-farm benefits, like tolerance to insects or herbicide, Fumasi noted. "Those provide a benefit for consumers by making farmers more efficient and lowering food costs, so it’s a sound argument," he said. "But it’s still a couple of steps removed from consumers."

It was the same for the recently introduced biotech potato, which was genetically modified to pro­­duce a healthier French fry, Fumasi noted. The new spud was still too far removed from the consumer and has yet to catch on.

In contrast, consumers will be able to clearly see the benefits of the Arctic Apple, Fumasi said. "Consumers can cut it up, or buy it already sliced, put it in their kids’ lunch, and it won’t brown. It’s a far more in-your-face benefit than we’ve had before."

The new apple, the analyst said, is also expected to reduce food waste. And because it can be sold in bags like baby carrots, it will give consumers more access to fresh fruit.

Information available

Another key to the apple’s potential for success is that Okanagan is being very upfront about how it was developed, Fumasi said. The Arctic Apple label will have a snowflake label that contains a QR code.

That code, when scanned by a smartphone, takes the consumer to the company’s website. It offers detailed information on how the non-browning apple was developed using so-called gene silencing techniques which turn down the expression of genes that cause the browning, without changing the taste or texture of the fruit.

But with all of the things going for it, the success of the Arctic Apple is far from guaranteed, Fumasi said.

"The challenge will be getting it into the mass market and have it be accepted," he said.

Activist pushback

When Okanagan moves beyond the testing phase, anti-biotech activists are certain to pressure supermarket and restaurant chains to prevent them from selling and serving the new apple, he said. That tactic has been successful in the past, but the company hopes that it will backfire this time around because there will be strong consumer demand for the new and improved apple, Fumasi said.

"If the Arctic Apple opportunity proves fruitful, it could open the door for many other innovations," Fumasi wrote in the RaboResearch report he authored with Cindy Van Rijswick. But first, Fumasi said, "consumers will have to vote for the new apple with their dollars."