September 1, 2015

GENETIC ENGINEERING: A Fresh Look at the Technology

This summer, in a small way, genetically modified fresh produce got a bit of a makeover, with a larger transformational effort planned for the future.

Since the first genetically modified fresh crop hit the market more than two decades ago with the Calgene Flavr Savr tomato, the pro-GMO movement has not done particularly well.  While it has gained quite a foothold in the agronomic sector with many different Round-up ready varieties in corn, soybean, canola and the like, the concept has not caught on in the fresh produce sector.  Public opinion and perception has largely stifled progress.

In fact, Carly Scaduto, senior communications manager for Monsanto, said that firm, which is most closely associated with the GMO concept, has no current GMO breeding programs underway for the fresh produce industry.  The company does sell GMO varieties of fresh market zucchini and sweet corn, but both were the result of work that had already been done for the agronomic sector and not specific research for those fresh market varieties.  Scaduto said it was cost effective, for example, to take the work on genes developed for field corn and insert it into sweet corn.  The Performance Series Sweet Corn is both Round Up-ready and has a genetic trait that make its resistant to root worm.  Comparatively, the GMO zucchini has virus-resistant genes inserted.

Like most of the advantages in the GMO agronomic crops, these traits are good for the grower but really don’t do much for the consumer.  The same can be said for the genetic modifications that have allowed the Hawaiian papaya industry to survive.  A disease was threatening that industry until varieties were genetically modified to resist that disease.  The consumer has benefited by having continued access to more papayas, but that’s not a tangible benefit.

“Golden Rice” continues to be the goose that one day may lay the golden egg.  The Golden Rice Project has successfully inserted a gene into rice varieties that greatly increases their vitamin A content with the main goal of decreasing blindness in some of the world’s poorest countries, where vitamin A deficiency is a huge problem.  Unfortunately, public perception continues to block the use of these varieties in most of the countries where they could do the most good.

The public perception problem runs deep.  At the recent Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas, speaker Sara Menker, founder and CEO of Gro Intelligence, unwittingly articulated the issue better than most.  She said the problem with GMOs is a problem of perception rather than reality.  She readily admitted that it is a public relations problem as no one from the pro-GMO side counteracts the negative comments made by the anti-GMO folks.  But then she quickly added that she prefers non-GMO food.  The anti-GMO folks have done such a great job of vilifying the process that even one who knows better feels compelled to align with the anti-movement publicly.

Scaduto of Monsanto said that while that giant firm sells GMO seed, it does not market the products and believes that is the domain of those growing and marketing the food to publicly promote it.  The company is supportive of voluntary labeling as it believes the consumer should have a choice.  But voluntary labeling is far different than active promotion.  Another agro-giant, Syngenta, initially developed the Golden Rice seed but pulled out of the project a decade ago, almost certainly because of the negative publicity.

But now there are a couple of possibilities of some positive marketing to go along with GMO fresh produce.


The INNATE Potato

Simplot Plant Sciences has developed a non-browning potato through genetic engineering and it is beginning to proactively market that item as a superior product.  Doug Cole, director of marketing and communications for Simplot Plant Sciences, said the advantage of a non-browning potato is huge for the consumer and especially for the foodservice industry.  Anyone who has cut a potato knows that after a relatively short time, it starts to brown, which annoys consumers as well as foodservice operators.  Cole said imagine the efficiency of being able to peel and cut a potato at source and deliver it in that fashion to a foodservice operation, which can use the product at their leisure.  The same benefit will be evident to consumers as they peel the potatoes and note less bruising, browning or black spots.

Simplot received clearance from the Food and Drug Administration in March to use the Innate technology in various potato varieties.  The company is currently working with growers and retailers to bring to market several popular potato varieties with improved traits that benefit consumers, food producers and growers.  The Innate potato’s value proposition is that it has fewer black spots from bruising, stays whiter longer when cut or peeled and has lower levels of naturally-occurring asparagine, resulting in less acrylamide when cooked at high temperatures.  Innate potatoes are also less prone to pressure bruising during storage, resulting in less potato waste and potentially millions of dollars in savings to growers every year.

Cole said market research has shown that these tangible benefits will be accepted by the majority of consumers.  He noted that research shows that consumers react positively when told of these positive traits and informed that the genetic engineering involves turning off the browning gene.  He said Innate potatoes will be sold in limited test markets this summer and then reach a much broader market in spring of 2016.  Cole said Simplot believes the value proposition is strong, and it is urging growers and marketers to “accurately promote and market these exclusive features on relevant packaging.”  The firm believes it is in their best interest to promote these advantages because they have created a better potato.  How much money the giant company will put behind an effort to proactively market GMO potatoes is unknown, but it could be a game-changer.


The ARCTIC Apple

Traveling a similar course, albeit a bit slower because of the nature of tree crops, is Okanagan Specialty Foods.  This Canadian firm has developed the Arctic apple, which also is a genetically modified variety with the value proposition of “turning off the browning gene.”

Jennifer Armen, director of business development for the firm, said biotechnology has been employed “to silence the expression of the PPO enzyme which causes browning in apples.”  Besides presenting a better piece of fruit, she said the lack of browning, which changes the fruit nutritionally, results in the apple retaining more vitamin C after it is cut than a regular apple.

Initially, the company has developed an Arctic Granny Smith and an Arctic Golden Delicious.  These apples can be sliced and packaged without the use of preservatives.  Armen said that research has shown that children will eat 70 percent more apples when they are presented in a sliced fashion.  “We see this as a way to invigorate these apples varieties,” she said.  “The non-browning gives opportunities for many new uses.”

Okanagan’s Arctic apples have also been approved for growing and distribution by the FDA, but because it takes much longer to grow an apple than a potato, they will not be commercially available for a couple of more years.  However, the firm is also doing market research and Armen said consumers are reacting favorably when the value proposition is explained.  She said in one research survey, 51 percent of consumers said they were somewhat or extremely likely to purchase genetically modified, non-browning apples.  “When we explain how they are modified that figure jumped to 59 percent,” she said.

Okanagan Specialty Foods is a subsidiary of Intrexon, a multi-national company in the biotechnology realm using the science in a variety of food, health and environmental products.  Like Simplot, it has the financial muscle to put some promotional weight behind a GMO product.

Armen concedes that not all consumers will purchase genetically modified apples, but not all consumers purchase any product, she said.  Okanagan believes that a market does exist for Arctic apples and the firm is rock solid behind the concept.  She said two-thirds of consumers told researchers that if an apple was non-browning they would be more likely to purchase it.

The key will be whether retailers are willing to take a chance and sell and promote these items.  These two companies are betting that consumer perception can be changed and success will follow.


Future Opportunities Explored

And they are not alone.  A recent story in the consumer press noted that Del Monte is working on a cancer-fighting pink pineapple, and there are also GMO efforts to produce heart-healthy purple tomatoes and less fatty vegetable oils.

The belief is that as the value proposition is more clearly explained to consumers, they will embrace these products.  In a national wire story, Michael Firko, who oversees the USDA’s regulation of genetically modified organisms, said: “I think once people see more of the benefits, they will become more accepting of the technology.”

Reportedly, Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. has engineered a pink pineapple with lycopene, an antioxidant compound that gives tomatoes their red color and has shown cancer-prevention properties in many different research studies.  USDA has approved importation of the pineapple, which would be grown only outside of the United States; it is pending FDA approval.  In addition, a British company is reportedly planning to apply for U.S. permission to produce and sell a genetically modified purple tomato variety with high levels of anthocyanins, compounds found in blueberries that some studies show lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

With regard to agronomic crops, some of the major companies are currently developing modified soybean, canola and sunflower oils with fewer saturated fats and more Omega-3 fatty acids.  And there is also work ongoing to develop a genetically engineered orange tree that could potentially resist citrus greening disease.

Many believe that genetic engineering of crops will become an absolute necessity at some point as the world population continues to grow with no increase in arable land.  Has its time come?