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Scientists, environmental and consumer groups decry USDA approval of genetically engineered apple

Posted Feb. 13, 2015 / Posted by: Kate Colwell

Major food companies, apple growers are already rejecting “Arctic” apple

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Scientists, environmental and consumer groups denounced the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s deregulation of the Arctic® apple, the first genetically engineered apple, produced by a Canadian corporation, Okanagan Specialty Fruits. The USDA’s deregulation technically allows the Arctic® apple to be planted and sold without specific oversight, although the FDA may engage Okanagan in a voluntary safety consultation process prior to the GMO apple being available on the U.S. market.  According to Okanagan, the apples will be labeled as Arctic®, but will not be labeled as genetically engineered.

Despite this approval, major food companies including McDonald’s (NYSE: MCD) and Gerber (OTCMKTS: NSRGY) have already stated that they have no plans to source or sell this genetically engineered apple. These companies join major apple growing associations, including USApple and the Northwest Horticultural Council (representing Washington apple growers who grow more than 60 percent of U.S. apples), that have stated opposition to this GMO apple.

“Despite the USDA’s flawed approval of the GMO apple, there is no place in the U.S. or global market for genetically engineered apples.” said Lisa Archer, Food and Technology program director at Friends of the Earth. “Farmers don’t want to grow it, food companies don’t want to sell it and consumers don’t want to eat it.”

The GMO Arctic Apple® is genetically engineered via a new, virtually untested experimental technique called RNA interference -- or RNAi -- that many scientists are concerned may have negative, unintended impacts on human health and the environment. This technique was used in the Arctic® Apple to silence genes related to the production of enzymes which cause apples to brown when cut. Without natural browning, apples may look fresh when they are actually decaying.

Scientists believe that the natural browning enzyme in apples may help to fight diseases and pests, meaning that famers may have to increase their pesticide use on these new GMO apples. Conventional, non-GMO apples already carry some of the highest levels of toxic pesticide residues, many of them linked to hormone disruption, reproductive harm and ADHD.

"We are concerned that USDA's safety evaluation of this apple was inadequate, particularly with regard to the health and environmental implications of this particular RNAi technology," said Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union.

Scientists also worry that while Okanagan's RNAi process aims to silence four of the apple’s genes, the process may be dangerously imprecise: targeted gene sequences are similar to other closely related genes, so the silencing process could unintentionally impact genes that affect other functions in the plant. Okanagan’s petition for deregulation also does not adequately analyze the other potential functions that the targeted gene sequence could have, other than browning in apples, nor does it address the risk of unintentionally silencing the non-targeted genes. It is unclear how the USDA evaluates the risks from gene silencing and other powerful new biotechnologies.

If grown commercially, organic and conventional farms also face risks of contamination from neighboring GMO apple groves. Apple industry officials have voiced concerns that potential cross-contamination may cause important export markets such as Europe and China to reject U.S. grown apples or require costly testing and certifications from farmers and exporter companies.

Like other GMOs, this genetically engineered apple won’t be labeled and won’t have undergone independent safety assessment; regulators will rely on the company’s own assessment that the apple is safe for human consumption.

Apples are just the beginning: Okanagan Specialty Fruits has also announced plans to introduce genetically engineered peaches, cherries and pears in the near future.

“It’s interesting that USDA chose to approve this GMO apple on Friday the 13th -- it’s certainly an unlucky day for the apple growers, consumers and food companies that don’t want this unnecessary new GMO,” Archer said. "We will keep working to ensure that the market -- from grocery retailers to baby food companies -- continues to listen to the majority of consumers who don't want to eat this and other new, genetically engineered foods that are inadequately studied and unlabeled. And we will continue the fight to ensure all GMOs are labeled to protect consumers’ right to know what they are feeding their families.”

Note to editors: Letters to McDonald’s and Gerber signed by of environmental, consumer, parent’s and food safety groups and letters from McDonald’s and Gerber here: www.nogmoapples.org

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Expert contact: Dana Perls, (510) 978-4425, dperls@foe.org
Communications contact: Kate Colwell, (202) 222-0744, kcolwell@foe.org

 

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