The advance of genetic engineering makes it quite conceivable that we will begin to design our own evolutionary progress.

– Isaac Asimov

In recent weeks, I’ve seen a lot of news and blog articles about genetically modified apples:

Globe and Mail:Could an anti-browning technique boost the apple’s snack potential?

CBC:GM Foods: Would you eat genetically modified apples?

Business Week:USDA asked to approve GMO apple that won’t brown

Food Politics:The latest on the GM front: sugar beets and apples

To summarize, Okanagan Speciality Fruits is a small biotechnology company in Summerland British Columbia.  Okanagan is a privately held company working in partnership with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland.  They have asked Canadian and U.S. regulators to approve apples that have been genetically modified so that they don’t turn brown when sliced or dropped.

The company makes a good case for their new product:

  • anti-oxidants and vitamin C are preserved
  • longer shelf life
  • more visually appealing products

Why Do Apples Turn Brown?

So, why do apples turn brown in the first place?  Apples (and other fruits and vegetables) contain an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase.  When the apple is cut or bruised, this enzyme reacts with oxygen, in the air, and iron-containing phenols that are also present in the fruit.

What’s So Special About these Apples?

The technology used by Okanagan stops the browning by turning off a gene that is responsible for production of an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase.  It was originally developed in Australia for potatoes.

Is it a Good Idea?

They say they are not adding any foreign genes, but I’m afraid that is exactly what comes to mind when I hear the term genetically modified.  It is probably due to all the media hype surrounding genetic modification, but I’m scared of strange mutant fruit created by splicing apple and elephant genes.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not condemning genetic engineering.  I work in technology and I understand the desire to tinker and try to improve our products.  Farmers have actually been practicing genetic engineering, through selective breeding, for centuries.  The question is “where do we draw the line?”.  Is selective breeding okay?  If it is, then is gene manipulation as done for these apples okay?  What about transplanting genes from other species?  Are the end results safe?  These are hard questions for me to answer.


There are other methods that can be used to prevent browning.

  • The enzyme can be de-activated by cooking
  • The pH on the surface of the fruit can be reduced by adding acid (lemon juice for example)
  • The amount of oxygen available can be reduced (vacuum packaging or submersing fruit in water)
  • Preservatives (sulfur dioxide) can be added.

I would really love to hear your thoughts.  What do you think about genetically modified crops?  Are they necessary?  Are there alternatives?

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