This month, bags of sliced apples will hit grocery-store shelves in the midwestern United States for the first time. Shoppers who purchase the apples can leave the slices out for snacking, because of a feat of genetic engineering that prevents their flesh from browning when exposed to air.
The ‘Arctic apple’ is one of the first foods to be given a trait intended to please consumers rather than farmers, and it joins a small number of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be sold as a whole product, not an ingredient. Since Okanagan Specialty Fruits in Summerland, Canada, planted its first test apples in 2003, the array of foods modified in labs has expanded to include meatless burgers, made with soya protein produced by recombinant yeast, fish fillets grown from seafood stem cells, and mushrooms whose genomes have been edited with CRISPR technology. Most of these items have not yet reached the market.
Now, many small biotechnology companies developing such foods are watching the Arctic apple’s launch, eager for clues to how consumers will perceive the fruits of their labour.
“If the apple sells, it will pave the way for others,” says Yinong Yang, a plant pathologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, who used CRISPR to engineer a mushroom that resists browning. He hopes one day to license his mushroom to commercial growers.
Mary Maxon, who oversees biosciences programmes at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, agrees. “The apple is not the first GMO that people would eat, but it’s the first one that consumers may value,” she says.
When Okanagan co-founder Neal Carter took over his family’s orchard in 1995, he thought hard about how to win over the US snack market. He found his answer in Australia, where researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation had figured out how to delete a gene encoding an enzyme that causes plant cells to brown when exposed to oxygen. Carter realized that suppressing production of the enzyme in apples might allow him to sell them in snackable slices without preservatives.
Only later did he realize that if consumers were to be enticed to buy, Americans’ distrust of GMOs would need to be overcome. Okanagan’s subsequent surveys of people in America’s top apple-growing states—New York and Washington—revealed that about 20% were wary of GMOs. But the company also found that many people changed their minds when told that the apples were engineered to silence browning genes, and then tested for safety.
Mike Seldon, the co-founder of Finless Foods, a firm in New York City that is developing fish fillets from fish stem cells, agrees that providing more information helps to win over consumers. “We’re not going to repeat the mistakes of the GMO industries in the past, and just put foods on the market without public conversation,” he says. “If we do, you can expect a backlash—and that’s warranted.”
Seldon sees a parallel between the Arctic apple and his fillets: both were created with attributes to please consumers. Finless Foods, which has made prototypes of bluefin-tuna fillets, hopes that people will be won over by the idea of eating fish without worrying about overfishing, animal slaughter or environmental pollution.
But others say that Okanagan hasn’t gone far enough in telling consumers how its apple was made. The company does not mention GMOs on the apples’ bags; instead, the bags have a QR code—which links to online information when it is scanned by a smartphone. “Not everyone has a smartphone, and even if you have one, are you going to check every item with it?” says Bill Freese, a science-policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group in Washington DC. He wants the apples to be clearly labelled as GMOs.
Consumer reaction isn’t the only concern for developers of genetically engineered or other lab-made foods who want to sell their wares in the United States. One major stumbling block is the US regulatory process, which involves a complicated tangle of federal agencies—and, for many companies, an unclear path forward. US regulators assessed the Arctic apple for five years before approving it for sale, but spent just two years reviewing a non-browning GM potato developed by agricultural firm J. R. Simplot of Boise, Idaho.
Then there is the case of the CRISPR mushroom. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said in 2016 that it would not evaluate the mushroom, which was created by using CRISPR to delete a gene. That seemed to clear the fungus’s path to the market. But Yang says that, after Nature’s news team reported on the USDA’s decision, the US Food and Drug Administration contacted him to ask whether it could review the mushroom. “I agreed to that since it would give consumers a peace of mind,” he says.
As far as investors are concerned, regulatory uncertainty may be less of a barrier to the success of engineered foods than customer uncertainty. James Hardiman, a partner at the venture-capital fund Data Collective in San Francisco, California, says that companies developing such foods can always build a few extra years into their long-term plans, to account for twists in the regulatory process. “The public narrative is much more difficult to control,” he says. “We know the public can be irrational.”
Still, Carter is optimistic about how his Arctic apple will be received. “We rarely get e-mails saying we are Satan any more,” he says of his company. “Now we have people asking where they can buy the apples.”