Arctic Apple could be Litmus test for future of GM foods, Rabobank analysts suggest

Source: iStock

When the Arctic Apple hits select store shelves this month as one of the first products genetically modified for consumers’ benefit, it will serve as a line in the sand for the tug of war between the non-GMO movement and the future of food innovation.

Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which developed the non-browning apple, will test consumers’ willingness to purchase produce that has been genetically modified specifically for their benefit – rather than for farmers as a pesticide and herbicide resistant plant – in 10 stores in the Midwest beginning this month.

The company developed the fruit as a value added item that can be sold pre-sliced without additional non-browning solution, which can turn off some consumers and adds a step for food service providers. And, at the risk of placing too much on a single fruit, Okanagan also says it hopes the convenience and appearance of the fruit should help temp more consumers to eat healthier and reduce waste.

But, are these benefits enough to help the Arctic Apple overcome mounting consumer fears and dislike of genetically modified organisms, ask Rabobank analysts in a note published earlier this year.

“Organic, ‘clean label’ and natural foods – regardless of what those terms actually mean – are thriving, while GM foods are under fire. Consumers are skeptical when it comes to GM food, despite the fact that it already constitutes part of their daily diets in the form of GM food ingredients and animal feed,” analysts Cindy Van Riiswick and Roland Fumasi write in the note.

Consumer fear of GMO, fueled largely by a vocal advocates for labeling genetically modified foods, also comes in the face of regulators, including FDA and the World Health Organization, which have repeatedly said genetically modified organisms raise no safety concerns.

Despite scientific support for the safety of GM, many brands have reformulated their products not to use GM ingredients and had them certified as Non-GMO Verified. Far fewer companies talk about the presence of GMOs and their benefits – a strategic mistake that supporters of genetic modification say is costing sales and holding back much-needed agricultural innovation.

For example, when JR Simplot developed the Innate Potato the company failed to educate and engage consumers about its benefits and safety fast enough – resulting in companies, like McDonald’s bowing to anti-GMO groups’ pressure and announcing publically that it would not sell fries made from the potatoes.

Early consumer education could be the key to success

Learning from this, Okanagan is investing heavily in consumer outreach, education and product transparency.

The fruit’s webpage and blog use a chatty conversational tone, rather than a potentially intimidating technical and scientific voice, to explain to consumers how the apple was created, its benefits and how to distinguish it from other non-GMO apples.

The company explains that it created non-browning Arctic apples by “silencing the enzyme that cause apples to brown when bitten, sliced or bruised,” which is different from other forms of genetic modification, which might include inserting genes from other species to create a desired outcome.

It also explains that technology offers significant economic benefits to everyone along the supply chain. For example, growers will no longer “suffer from lower apple grading and packouts because of unnecessary browning,” processors will no longer have to add “a whole bunch of expensive chemical nonbrowning treatments,” retailers should be able to sell more apples because they won’t experience unnecessary browning from bumps along the way, and foodservice operators won’t have to worry about off-taste of sliced apples due to additives to prevent browning.

Finally, it argues consumers will save money and time by being able to prepare recipes in advance without having to throw away brown apples.

Recognizing that some consumers want non-GMO apples and the fear of other growers that consumers will turn away from all apples if they cannot easily tell which ones are genetically modified, all Arctic apples will be clearly labeled on the whole fruit and on packaging.

The apple packs also will have QR codes which consumers can snap to learn more about how they were developed. In addition, the company’s blog encourages open dialogue through comments. In its comments, the company says it encourages “respectful” discussion.

With all this in mind, Rabobank analysts quip that “if the apple doesn’t turn out to be a success, it is not for a lack of openness.”

If on the other hand, the analysts write, the Artic Apple “proves fruitful, it could open doors for many other innovations,” which “will continue to be a key success factor in the competitive fruit market.”

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