The First GMO Apple Approved by the USDA

Posted on in On Our Radar by Amy Zif

Trouble to the Core


On Friday the 13th last month, perhaps an appropriate date for what many will view as a grim day for the food system, the USDA approved America’s first genetically modified apple. The company marketing the apple promises a unique feature: they won’t brown when sliced.

This is not the first time genetically engineered (GE) food has been allowed in the US market (we’ve already got genetically engineered corn, soy, and more), and it certainly won’t be the last. But when you tinker with the apple, you’re toying with an icon. Will the Arctic apple be what it takes for Americans to finally refuse genetically engineered foods? Or will this be one more overly processed bite we swallow?

What’s unusual about the Arctic apple is that it bucks the usual trend in biotech foods. The majority of GE foods are meant to withstand certain herbicides or pesticides, to tolerate particular weather conditions, such as drought, or to be more resistant to pests. The argument in favor of these foods rests on the claim that we can’t feed the world without them. But this apple isn’t about feeding the world. It’s about selling you a cosmetically enhanced product that looks fresh when it might, in fact, be on the verge of rotting.

This apple is being altered with a GE process known as RNA interference (RNAi) that inhibits the apple’s natural browning enzymes. A normal apple begins to turn brown once exposed to oxygen—basically, when cut. However, with the RNAi technique, an apple won’t brown until 15–18 days later.

Can you imagine the taste of a sliced apple 15 days old? One must then also imagine the amount of preservatives and flavor enhancers it would require for that apple to remain “tasty.” For years, the food industry has relied on natural means to prevent browning, primarily using lemon juice or ascorbic acid, but that method won’t last for days, let alone weeks. The Arctic apple has been tinkered with to dupe consumers into thinking it’s fresh when it’s not.

Critics say that the USDA’s process for approval was inadequate based on the advanced technology being used. But the law only stipulates that the USDA determine whether the GMO apple is safe for plants. Contrary to popular belief, the USDA does not investigate larger impacts on the ecosystem, unintended impacts on human health, safety, or public opinion. (Indeed, the USDA received overwhelming opposition from the public regarding the Arctic apple.) Some scientists believe the process of browning is related to how the apple fends off pests, and that the GMO apple will thus require even more pesticides.

How will the modified RNA act inside the human body? Some worry about a negative impact on the human immune system as well as unintended consequences for animals and pests, not to mention trees, soil, and microbes. The answer is simply that we don’t know. The necessary tests haven’t been conducted.

Whatever side of the GMO argument you’re on, the real problem with the GMO apple, as with all GE foods, is the lack of independent testing of their impact on human health and the environment.

GMOs were supposed to require less pesticide use, but it turns out that overwhelmingly, these new crops require a great deal more—often to the benefit of Monsanto and other Big Ag corporations deeply invested in GE crops. The USDA’s own scientists expressed concern about the unintended risks of RNAi products and said that more data was needed to answer critical questions. In a recent study, several USDA researchers cited potential hazards from RNAi-based GMO crops, including silencing of unintended genes in target and nontarget organisms, and possible impacts on these organisms’ immune systems. Yet, the USDA still approved the GMO apple.

These new modified apples will become part of our food supply without any requirement to disclose to consumers when they appear. Around the world, 64 nations (including China, Kenya, Taiwan—even Russia) require labeling of GMOs. However, the US does not. This apple being cleared by the USDA does not guarantee widespread acceptance. There are economic risks for farmers and companies selling apple products, since we don’t know if consumers will reject them. Recent polling shows a majority of Americans would prefer genetically modified foods be labeled.

Some major apple trade associations fear the introduction of this GMO fruit will force them to implement costly measures to protect against cross-contamination and will result in decreased sales to foreign markets where GMO labeling and other restrictions exist. Apples are big business—the US is the No. 2 producer of apples around the world, with more than one-third of apple revenue from exports. These questions should be answered before GMO apple trees are planted.

In the meantime, you may never look at an apple without wondering, Is this an apple born of a lab, or is it the real thing? Unless you’re buying organic or non-GMO-verified apples, you’ll have no idea whether you’re eating a modified apple. If you believe you have the right to know, urge your grocery store chain to reject the GMO apple, and call your senators to support federal GMO labeling laws. Speak out to protect America’s beloved apple before one bad apple spoils the bunch.

Amy Ziff is a health educator and founder of Nontoxic Certified, America’s first lab-verified program for safer products.

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