WASHINGTON — An apple genetically engineered not to turn brown is putting the Agriculture Department and the apple industry on the spot.
The department appears inclined to approve the so-called Arctic apple, designed by a small Canadian company. First, though, officials must confront some enduring public distaste for genetically modified foods.
"This is an economic disaster," Henry House, an organic apple grower in Davis, Calif., recently warned the Agriculture Department.
Organic growers such as House fear that honeybees will spread genetically engineered apple pollen and contaminate organic orchards. Some consumer advocates maintain a more general antipathy toward engineered foods, while industry groups that include the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima, Wash., also object to what would be the first genetically engineered apple in commercial production.
Washington state accounts for 44 percent of the nation's apple-bearing land, with 146,000 acres.
"This is a huge issue, and it has great ramifications for our industry," Christian Schlect, the president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, said in a telephone interview Friday, adding that "we're concerned about the marketing impact, from consumer impact to the imposition of additional costs."
The U.S. Apple Association, noting that "browning is a natural process related to the exposure to oxygen," has likewise voiced opposition to the Arctic apple.
Thousands of others have weighed in as the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service considers whether to grant "non-regulated status" to varieties called the Arctic Golden and the Arctic Granny. Approval would give the commercial green light to British Columbia's Okanagan Specialty Fruits.
"We're closer than ever to bringing Arctic apples to the market," company officials enthused in a blog post last year.
Company President Neal Carter added in an email Friday that he "expects full deregulation" of the apples this year.
"It will be a few more years before Arctic apples enter the supply chain as the orchards mature into productive trees," Carter said.
A family-run operation, Okanagan began developing the apples more than a decade ago. Field trials have been conducted in Washington and New York state orchards, representing different kinds of apple-growing climates. The extended testing even included building a "special bruising apparatus" to help assess the apples' durability, according to Okanagan's 192-page petition to the Agriculture Department.
Unlike some other genetically modified crops, the Arctic apple doesn't include genes spliced in from an entirely different species. The Arctic apple's resistance to what scientists call "enzymatic browning," which is what happens when a typical apple is cut or bruised, comes from the insertion of a certain genetic sequence taken from an apple. The inserted sequence essentially suppresses the browning process.
With federal approval, the company no longer would need special permits before it put the genetically modified apples into production. If they get the go-ahead, company officials have indicated, the Arctic apples could reach grocery stores sometime in 2015.
"I feel strongly this is a technology that needs to be embraced if we are going to feed our planet," Carter said in a videotaped presentation.
Registered nurse Sarah Schultz, who blogs under the title Nurse Loves Farmer, said in a recent post that she thinks the more "visually appealing" apple slices that don't turn brown will encourage children to eat more healthy snacks.
First, though, the Agriculture Department must process all the public reactions received in a comment period that's been extended until Jan. 30. The initial comment period, in 2012, drew more than 72,000 statements, including many form letters from opponents. The latest period has drawn more than 6,100 comments, many of them passionately worded from opponents of genetically modified organisms.
"Growing these GMO apples is insane," Loxahatchee, Fla., resident Ellie Jensen wrote last month.
While the public comments have often been skeptical, federal officials have sounded sympathetic. In an 83-page draft environmental assessment completed last year, Agriculture Department scientists recommended approving the product they think can help the apple industry.
"Browning reduces apple quality by causing detrimental flavor and nutritional changes that limit apple's fresh-market, fresh-cut and processing applications," the Agriculture Department officials noted.
The federal assessment further concluded that the genetically engineered apples "are unlikely to post a plant pest risk." As a result, the federal officials rejected the need for buffer zones separating Arctic apples from other orchards. Organic growers, the officials predicted, "will not be substantially affected" by the "limited acreage" planted with the genetically engineered crops, though officials added that organic growers "may need to discuss their needs" with neighbors who opt for the Arctic apples.
The Agriculture Department, moreover, is effectively limited to considering whether a new product poses a potential plant risk, and questions such as potential market impact or consumer reaction aren't really part of the equation.
"In general, this administration and past administrations have been very favorable toward biotechnology," acknowledged Schlect, of the horticultural council.