29 Okanagan Specialty Fruits & the Arctic® Apple

By K. J. Britto

Setting the Scene

Imagine this scenario: You have had a long Monday, waking up with just enough time to get your lunch ready and make it out the door to work. After a long and stressful morning, you get to the break room for lunch, ready to enjoy the nice, crisp apple you cut up and packed in the morning. Only to discover the surface to be mushy and brown. Some part of you knows it is still edible, but it looks so unappetizing that you push it aside for discrete disposal later. You think to yourself ‘if only there was a way that my apple would not turn brown before I could eat it.’ Well there is.


The Arctic® apples, a product of Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), was designed in a way that prevents the primary browning process in apples from occurring (“How’d we ‘make’ a nonbrowning apple?” n.d.). This means that the apple stays crisp and looks fresh for a longer period of time, despite exposure or physical damage (“How’d we ‘make’ a nonbrowning apple?” n.d.). However, the Arctic® apple is a genetically modified organism (GMO) which, as a label, brought its own issues and problems to the product and always has a negative impact on reception and spread of the crops involved. This issue is one that plagues many crops in the agricultural industry. To combat the negative attention of a GMO reputation OSF came up with many unique solutions and strategies, some of which have the potential to change the ways GMOs are approached in the future.

Okanagan Specialty Fruits

The company was founded in 1996 by Neal and Louisa Carter in Okanagan Valley, BC. Neal Carter had previously worked as a bioresource engineer, focused on helping third world countries enhance food security (“Meet Our Team” n.d.). It was during this time he became convinced of the importance in biotechnology and genetically engineered (GE) crops for helping farmers deal with the increasing demand for food (“Meet Our Team” n.d.). This led to the founding of OSF (“Meet Our Team” n.d.).

  The Apple Industry

At the time OSF was founded Neal Carter noticed some things (“Meet Our Team” n.d.). He was concerned with how it was flatlining and stalling compared to others that were seeing growth and innovation (“Arctic® Apples: more apples for consumers,” n.d.). With society becoming increasingly ‘on-the-go’ the agricultural and food industries had to modify their products to fit these new needs (“Nonbrowning GM apple cleared” n.d.).

However, the apple industry faced a unique issue. If the apples were cut and packaged they would slowly brown, looking unappetizing and spoiled (Lane, n.d.). The only way to prevent this was to treat the apple slices with a collection of chemicals to prevent this (Armstrong, n.d.). However, consumers were often wary of consuming these products, additionally, these chemicals used and cause minor irritation and health issues in certain groups of people (Armstrong, n.d.) (“Nonbrowning GM apple cleared” n.d.). This represented a huge area of opportunity to enter if a working product could be developed (“Nonbrowning GM apple cleared” n.d.).

OSF learned about a project in Australia to produce non-browning potatoes to reduce food loss and waste (“Meet Our Team” n.d.). Neal decided that this would be a huge potential avenue of exploration in order to develop the apple product and approach the market (“Meet Our Team” n.d.) . Once the technology involved was licensed by OSF trials to produce the Arctic® apple began in 2003(“About OSF – OK Specialty Fruits,” n.d.).

The Arctic® Apple

As stated earlier the Arctic® apple is a GMO that was produced by OSF as a non-browning apple (Armstrong, n.d.). However, the actual genes involved in this process are from the apples themselves, the genetic engineering involved used genes derived from apples themselves (Armstrong, n.d.).

The enzyme responsible for the browning process in response to physical damage or exposed flesh in Polyphenol Oxidase (PPO) (Armstrong, n.d.). This enzyme is naturally found in many plant species and is thought to be a natural defense against insects (Armstrong, n.d.) (“Consumer, environmental groups,” n.d.). In Arctic® apples RNA interference (RNAi) is used to reduce PPO to less than 10% of what would typically be found (“How’d we ‘make’,” n.d.). RNAi involves using another RNA molecule to terminate the synthesis of the original RNA molecule and is a natural way to control gene regulation in many species (“How’d we ‘make’,” n.d.). OSF scientists added these genes to the apple varieties to downregulate PPO synthesis and create the Arctic® apple(“How’d we ‘make’,” n.d.).

This is an important part of the Arctic® apple brand as the varieties use genes that produce a product that silences the PPO enzyme, and then get degraded (Armstrong, n.d.). As such, there is no remaining structure or protein that can be ingested which might raise concerns among consumers (Armstrong, n.d.). Additionally, the final product contained no added or artificial pest resistance enzymes derived from bacterial species (Armstrong, n.d.). This means that it does not produce its own pesticides, and as a result, it Arctic® apples did not have to be reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Armstrong, n.d.).

The process for generating the Arctic® apple started in 2003, submissions to regulatory agencies were made as early as 2010 but crops and orchard were still being monitored and examined for any new data (“About OSF,” n.d.). OSF highlights that third-party crop consultants were used to manage and track the orchards progress (“About OSF” n.d.). This was because OSF wanted to submit as much data as possible to the respective regulatory agencies for clear transparency around the Arctic® apple (“Agricultural,” n.d.).

The Regulatory Process

By 2011 the Arctic® Golden Delicious apple and the Arctic® Granny Smith apple had entered the review process in both Canada and the United States of America (U.S.A.), and both were approved in 2015 (“Nonbrowning GM apple cleared,” n.d.). The Arctic® Fuji apple was approved for U.S.A. sales in 2016 and Canadian sales in 2018 (“Nonbrowning GM apple cleared for market,” n.d.).

During the first submission (the Golden Delicious and Granny Smith varieties) the apples participated in a public feedback program within the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS) (“How does a genetically engineered food get to the Canadian market?” n.d.) (“How does a genetically engineered food get to the U.S. market” n.d.) (“Canada seeks public input on Arctic® Apples” n.d.) (“U.S. regulator seeks comments on biotechnology-produced nonbrowning Arctic® apple” n.d.). This allowed both agencies as well as OSF to receive public (and expert) opinions and insight on the apples which was considered regarding their approval on the market (“Addressing common misconceptions,” n.d.). OSF took advantage of these surveys by addressing the questions, comments, and concerns that were brought up by the individuals involved (“Addressing common misconceptions of Arctic® orchards and fruit,” n.d.). Altogether, the typical review process for a GMO product, in both Canada and the U.S.A. would take around 2-3 years (“How does a genetically engineered food get to the Canadian market?” n.d.) (“How does a genetically engineered food get to the U.S. market” n.d.).

Additionally, in 2015 APHIS allowed the Arctic® apple to gain a deregulated status, meaning that they believe it does not pose a plant pest risk to other crops or plants in the US (“U.S. to deregulate,” n.d.). This was done after APHIS focused on a number of issues around the plant, including potential cross-pollination, effect on biological organisms, effect on the physical environments, potential for weakened defense systems and increased susceptibility to disease (“U.S. to deregulate,” n.d.). Finding no difference between the Arctic® apple and a non-GE apple APHIS provided the Arctic® apple with a deregulated status (“U.S. to deregulate,” n.d.). This allows OSF to plant and distribute the Arctic® apple without restriction (“U.S. to deregulate,” n.d.).

Opinions and Opposition

2011 also OSF conduct their own surveys among potential consumers across Canada, with 1000 adults participating in this survey (Brooks, n.d.). The individuals polled were self-identified ‘apple-eaters’ and differed in age, education and income levels (Brooks, n.d.). Overall 62% of people surveyed thought that a non-browning apple was a good idea, while those opposed or indifferent were closely split (Brooks, n.d.). People who liked the idea of the Arctic® apple stated that the appeal was in “…would be visually appealing, fresher, last longer (and thus save money), and would result in more people eating more apples…” (Brooks, n.d.). After the initial survey respondents were then educated on the process on how the Arctic® apple was produced (Brooks, n.d.). Post education the number of people who thought the apple was a good idea and were interested in buying it increased (Brooks, n.d.). This demonstrated to the team at OSF that education of potential consumers can go a long way to improving the appreciation of their product. Following this, OSF has maintained a running blog that regularly provides insight to the company and related news, as well as their frequently asked questions (FAQ) page that addresses common questions (“OK Specialty Fruits,” n.d.).

However, not all people were enthused about the Arctic® apple. That includes organizations like the US Apple Association, the Northwest Horticultural Council, and the BC Fruit Growers Association, all of which sent letters to the regulatory bodies involved to reject OSFs application for potential market disruptions (“Nonbrowning GM apple cleared,” n.d.). Organisations have argued that the apple will be put it front and center for the GMO labeling debate (“Nonbrowning GM apple cleared,” n.d.). Chris Schlect, then president of the Northwest Horticultural Council said “Apples are a symbolic product. It’s a fruit that a mother gives to a child going to school, gives to a child going to school.” (“Nonbrowning GM apple cleared,” n.d.) These groups all operate within the industry and have vested interests in keeping potential competitors bay, as well as concerns about the safety of their own crops. Once approval in the states was evident US apple released this statement “We are confident from the assurance we’ve received from Okanagan that they intend to stand by their pledge to clearly identify their apples in all marketing and packaging, enabling customers to choose between GM and non-GM apples.” (“Nonbrowning GM apple cleared,” n.d.) Again, highlighting the issues around the term GMO and how they affect the Arctic® apple.

Other corporations entered the fray later on in the movement. Fast food giants Wendys and McDonalds, as well as baby food company Gerber, have all stated they have no plans to use the Arctic® apple in their products (“McDonald’s, Gerber,” n.d.) (“3 Companies Say,” n.d.). Upon reviewing the letters, however, Neal Carter had this to say, “The conclusion that either of these companies has ‘rejected’ Arctic apples is clearly false,” (“McDonald’s, Gerber,” n.d.)  Carter believes the language used implies that there may be a possible future where these organizations are open to the possibility of using the Arctic® apple (“McDonald’s, Gerber,” n.d.).

Organisations such as the “Friends of the Earth”, an environmental group committed to keeping GMOs out of foodstuffs were even less enthused of the progress the Arctic® apple was making (“Scientists, environmental and consumer groups,” n.d.). The comments they raise include the fact that this trait only serves a cosmetic purpose and therefore it may be risky in pursuing a GMO option with potential for harmful effects (“Consumer, environmental groups call on,” n.d.).

The disparity towards the Arctic® apple grew once the approval was made, a decision that some say happened to fast (“Scientists, environmental and consumer groups,” n.d.). Lisa Archer of “Friends of the Earth” said, “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.” (“Scientists, environmental and consumer groups,” n.d.) Scientists associated with these groups worry about the preciseness of the RNAi method and what other genes it has the potential to affect (“Scientists, environmental and consumer groups,” n.d.). These concerns were elevated further after APHIS granted a deregulated status to the Arctic® apple (“Consumer, environmental groups call on,” n.d.). The main argument is that the USDA and FDA approvals were done based solely on data provided by the company (“Consumer, environmental groups call on,” n.d.).

Safety Concerns

Opposing groups raised many concerns regarding the Arctic® apple. Their primary concern was that cross-pollination of the GMO apple with other trees will remove the organic status of those trees (“Engineered Apples Near,” n.d.). This could affect whole orchards as it may remove the organic status of those apples (“Engineered Apples Near,” n.d.). This can affect the market, both domestically and internationally (“Engineered Apples Near,” n.d.). OSF countered this by saying that cross-pollination is not a worry when it comes to apples (Brooks, n.d.). Imported and native American apples have interacted for years with no lasting harmful effects (Brooks, n.d.). Working with independent consultants OSF demonstrated that bees rarely travel outside the range of known food sources (Brooks, n.d.). They maintain the contamination of seeds would be detectable due to the infrequency in which it occurs (Brooks, n.d.). OSF also argues that if cross-pollination did occur only the seed, which is not consumed, would be contaminated and the fruit would contain no traces of the Arctic® modification (Armstrong, n.d.).

Another safety concern groups had with the Arctic® apple is the lack of PPO produced (“Consumer, environmental groups call on,” n.d.). Since PPO is still believed to be involved with defense against pests’ individuals are concerned that lack of PPO will lead to more susceptibility as well as the need for higher pesticide use (“Consumer, environmental groups call on,” n.d.). OSF argues that the regulation status granted by APHIS shows that the crop is not more susceptible to pests (“Addressing common misconceptions,” n.d.). However, opposition maintains their stance because the orchards used by APHIS to test the apple were maintained with the use of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides meaning the data obtained should be declared inconclusive (“Nonbrowning GM apple cleared,” n.d.). These concerns are legitimized because non-organic apples are reputed to have the highest pesticide levels (“Scientists, environmental and consumer groups,” n.d.). Anti-GMO groups worry that the Arctic® apple growers may be forced to use even more of these chemicals to protect the crop with the natural (“Scientists, environmental and consumer groups,” n.d.). OSF rebukes this by stating that that function of PPO can be seen in other crops that produce PPO is high amounts, apples had already naturally lower amounts of PPO and it may just be remnants from when the fruit was wild (Armstrong, n.d.).

A final concern is the variableness of the RNAi method of gene silencing, which is what is used to produce the Arctic® apple phenotype (non-browning) (“Scientists, environmental and consumer groups,” n.d.). Opposition scientists worry that the targeting mechanism may not exclusive effect genes linked to PPO and therefore affect other genes and enzymes (“Scientists, environmental and consumer groups,” n.d.). This can have a negative effect on the plant overall as it may throw the internal systems out of balance (“Scientists, environmental and consumer groups,” n.d.). Anti-GMO advocates also stated the trait acquired is still purely cosmetic and can be mimicked using a vitamin C source and calcium ascorbate (“Scientists, environmental and consumer groups,” n.d.). As such they see no reason to manipulate the genes and potentially produce unintentional adverse effects (“Scientists, environmental and consumer groups,” n.d.).

The Okanagan Specialty Fruits Approach

The team at OSF took a novel approach to a controversial market, perhaps learning from their early work and their corporate peers. They came up with a strategy of education and transparency (“Agricultural biotechnology,” n.d.).

When sold the Arctic® apple packages will labels indicating that they are Arctic® apples, but not indicating that they’re GMOs, as well as a QR code that, when scanned, takes consumers to a webpage discussing the benefits and safety of consuming the apple (“Nonbrowning GM apple cleared,” n.d.) (“Arctic® apples,” n.d.). This allows potential customers to become educated within the store and make their decisions right there. This webpage is part of an entire website dedicated to the Arctic® apple product, which provides consumers with a lot of information about the apple, the way it was made, apples in general and much more (“Arctic® apples,” n.d.). This website also connects consumers to the OSF website.

The OSF website is structured in a similar way. Users can browse information about the OSF team and company history (“OK Specialty Fruits,” n.d.). They can also learn more about the scientific practices behind OSF, Agricultural biotech, and their apple supply chain (“OK Specialty Fruits,” n.d.). The team at OSF also has a permanent blog on the website, with posts written by members and other people highlighting the safety, and potential of OSF and the Arctic® apple, as well as all the steps it took to get approval and a de-regulated status (“OK Specialty Fruits,” n.d.).

Lastly, OSF has been very transparent with their application process (“Agricultural biotechnology,” n.d.). They have used third-party consultants to perform the management and testing of the Arctic® apple products (“Agricultural biotechnology,” n.d.). They also provided everything that was required and requested by the regulatory bodies involved, and participated in voluntary studies and public surveys to provide people with information and receive feedback (“Agricultural biotechnology,” n.d.) (“U.S. regulator seeks comments,” n.d.) (“Canada seeks public input,” n.d.).

OSF also pushes the Arctic® apple as being convenient and healthy, something that the modern consumer would appreciate (Lane, n.d.). Being sold exclusively in sliced forms the Arctic® apple is targeted to people who want a healthy food on the go (Lane, n.d.). OSF did this primarily because of the rise in popularity of ready foods and meal prep kits, as well as the low amount of pre-prepped products that exist in the apple market (Lane, n.d.) (“OK Specialty Fruits,” n.d.).


In 2015 American biotechnology company Intrexon acquired OSF, realizing the potential of the independent company (“About OSF,” n.d.). Intrexon has committed to the Arctic® apple and other crops that OSF has in its experimental pipeline (“About OSF,” n.d.). OSF states that its mission to improve the efficiency of food production while increasing consumer appeal is supported by Intrexons mission to improve the quality of life and health on the planet (“About OSF,” n.d.).


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