Can these apples change the GMO conversation?

By Justin Cremer

April 15, 2019

An apple that doesn’t brown. Lettuce that doesn’t wilt. Avocados that don’t go bad shortly after you cut them open.

Are these the foods that are going to win over consumers who are skeptical of genetic modification? Jack Bobo sure thinks so.

Bobo, the vice president for global policy and government affairs at the biotech company Intrexon, is convinced that using science to create “more products that people want and love” will ultimately change the conversation on GMOs.

Intrexon has already brought some of those products to market. Its Arctic Golden apple and Granny Smith apple received regulatory approval in the United States and Canada in 2015, while its Fuji variety has been approved by Canadian authorities and the US Department of Agriculture and is awaiting final clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) voluntary review process.

So far, consumers appear to very much want apples that won’t brown when sliced, bruised or bitten. Intrexon reports that it has already planted one million apple trees and plans to plant a million more in order to match demand.

The early success has Bobo clearly excited about not only the company’s future, but how the humble apple – that staple of school lunchboxes everywhere – may reshape the opinions of consumers who paradoxically have “never cared more nor known less about how their food is produced.”

“Our apples are the first GMO in the history of the world that consumers will buy because it’s a GMO rather than in spite of the fact that it’s a GMO,” he told the Alliance for Science on the sidelines of the recent International Society of Biosafety Research (ISBR) symposium in Tarragona, Spain.

Jack Bobo at the ISBR symposium in Tarragona, Spain on April 1, 2019.

“The science is what is cool”

But with Bobo’s own admission that consumers’ hunger for information about the food they eat outpaces their actual knowledge, and with a recent study showing that people who hold the most extreme views opposing GM foods think they know most about the science but actually know the least, it seemed fair to ask if his claim is actually true. Do consumers really think of the Arctic Apple as a GMO product, and does that even matter?

“Many people just see a trait that they like and don’t pay much attention to the science,” he said. “But we think the science is what is cool about it and we want them to know that.”

So, what is the science? In short, apples brown when their phenolic compounds are exposed to oxygen. In the Arctic apples, the enzyme that drives this oxidation process, polyphenol oxidase (PPO), is silenced through gene modification. The result is an apple with less than a tenth of the PPO of a conventional variety, which is not enough to allow for browning. The apples don’t become freaks of nature, though; they still eventually rot just like conventional varieties.

Whether one agrees with Bobo that this is “cool” is largely beside the point. The real reason Arctic apples appeal to consumers, he said, is because there is a clear sustainability benefit.

Reducing food waste

Apples are the third-most wasted food item in the US, behind bread and potatoes. Estimates suggest that as much as 40 percent of all apples grown in America end up in the bin because of superficial browning and bruising. Bobo thinks our food waste problem makes the Arctic apple a “product that people very easily understand.” For someone who believes that the future of agriculture depends in no small part on the way the conversation is framed, this is a big deal.

“How we talk about things matters. We need to reframe the conversation from health and safety to sustainability because once it’s about sustainability, the calculus changes and people are willing to do different things,” Bobo said. “They might buy the Arctic apple because of the convenience, but it allows them to tell themselves a positive story about contributing to the reduction of food waste.”

While reducing the number of wasted apples isn’t going to solve things on its own, giving consumers a product that they can feel good about buying helps.

“We need an all-of-the-above approach. There is not one thing that is going to solve food waste, climate change or food security,” he said. “It’s going to be a thousand little things. But all of these things together add up to something significant.”

“People worry about what they’re told to worry about”

As a former State Department official who gave up what he called the “best job in the government” traveling the world giving speeches on global ag policy and the future of food, Bobo knows the importance of framing a message. In a recent Ted Talk, he delved into topics like behavioral economics, cognitive psychology and risk perception in an effort to understand “why we fear the food we eat.”

The short answer, he says, is that “people worry about what they’re told to worry about”. As a result, passionate opponents of GMOs have been able to create a perception that genetically modified food may pose health dangers even though the science clearly shows they don’t. It’s also why American supermarkets are filled with products bearing absurd labels like “gluten-free” water or the countless “GMO-free” products that have no GMO alternative.

This leads to consumer confusion, so for many people, the smart choice at the supermarket is to avoid all perceived risks even when there is no actual risk. Bobo argues that if consumers were more aware of some basic facts – like, for example, that most of the enzymes used in making beloved products like beer, wine and cheese are genetically modified – they would make better choices.

“I think it would be useful if we would talk more about the fact that a lot of processing aids and enzymes are genetically modified,” he said. “One of the things that is sad about current biotech labelling, and this is true all over the world, is that enzymes aren’t labeled. Well, if your beer, wine and cheese were all labeled, why would you care if your corn and soybean oil were? You wouldn’t.”

While we may be a long way away from eliminating GMO fears, Bobo said he’s encouraged by the response to the Arctic apple and the US FDA’s recent approval of the fast-growing salmon genetically engineered by AquaBounty, a subsidiary of Intrexon (“we do all things controversial,” he joked to the ISBR audience). Producing foods that consumers want to buy is going to go a lot farther than falling back on the same arguments that proponents of GMOs have been using for years.

He argues that pointing out their proven track record of safety, that they allow for significant reductions in hazardous chemical applications or that they are going to be a necessary component of feeding a rapidly growing global population are all indeed true points – but they fail to connect with most people.

“People aren’t going to change their behavior for someone else. They have to have a tangible benefit for themselves, so you have to have products that the people want,” he said.