Reception cool for GM apple

Claire TyrrellCountryman

The world's first genetically modified apple is being assessed for commercial release in northern America.

Canadian-based biotech company Okanagan Specialty Fruits is seeking regulatory approval for the Arctic apple, a variety genetically modified so it does not go brown when cut or bruised.

If the apple, which uses gene silencing technology to 'switch off' the browning gene, gets the nod from US and Canadian authorities, it will be one of the first GM fresh foods to hit the shelves.

The very first was the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994 which ignited the debate over GM foods.

Fruitwest chairman Ben Darbyshire said while most WA breeders and producers were not against GM technology, there were already conventionally bred non-browning varieties on the market.

"Non-browning is not a priority for WA or for Australia," he said.

"The only time that browning would be a problem is if you were trying to sell them as fresh sliced apples, whereas most people eat apples whole."

He said genetic modification for fire blight, which occurs in most countries except Australia, or for apple scab would have a far greater effect.

"If there was a gene that imposed fire blight resistance in apples it would have a huge difference right across the world," he said.

"If you had a gene that suppressed apple scab you would not need to use fungicides for apple scab."

Mr Darbyshire said the Queensland Department of Agriculture was developing an apple scab-resistant fruit through conventional breeding techniques.

"Even though it is not GM it is still gene modification," he said.

"If you can get it through natural selection that is terrific and if you can impose resistance through GM it might be OK but you wouldn't know until it has been properly tested."

Okanagan Specialty Fruits is also looking at using gene silencing technology to create fire blight and apple scab resistance.

The public comment period for its Arctic apple ends in mid-September.

In contrast, the Department of Agriculture and Food WA (DAFWA) is using conventional breeding methods in its quest for non-browning apples.

DAFWA developed the Western Dawn variety, a conventionally bred non-browning apple, derived from Pink Lady and Golden Delicious.

Sold as Enchanted, the apple was released commercially in 2008 and is available to consumers between April and June.

DAFWA technical officer Kevin Lacey said the department was building its genetic material to expand its conventional breeding base.

"The department is part of the Australian National Apple Breeding Program, based at Manjimup," he said. "Trial sites are also used throughout the State's main growing areas and interstate.

"Traditional breeding methods are used and current selections are based on crosses of popular established varieties such as Fuji, Cripps Pink, Cripps Red and Royal Gala.

"The program is focusing on using conventional breeding techniques and broadening its germplasm resource for the future to assist with the development of new varieties."

Manjimup-based Newton Brothers has grown Enchanted apples since 2005 and green Belgian-based non-browning variety Greenstar for the past three years.

Newton Brothers business manager Paul Good said both varieties were highly popular.

"Enchanted and Greenstar are among our highest selling apples per kilogram," he said.

Mr Good said GM technology could have a role in the future of Australian apple growing but decisions to grow GM crops should be made very carefully. "As it gets increasingly harder to have a technological advantage in agriculture, we've got to look at all the avenues available to us. GM technology is one of those avenues," he said.

"GM apples aren't going to be highly regarded by the Australian consumer, so if other countries are growing GM apples I don't think it would have any market appeal," he said.

"WA already has one of the lowest pest and disease environments in the world. We are already in perfect growing conditions and we don't need GM to improve them.

"However, if GM provided an apple with exceptionally high yields, cold storage and good taste, that would be something the Australian community would look at seriously."

The Federal Government's first National Food Plan, released last week, encouraged greater acceptance of GM technology to aid the nation's food production target of double by 2050.

An Office of the Gene Technology Regulator spokesman said there were field trials with GM papaya, pineapple, grapevines and bananas in the eastern states.

"Before any GM crop can be grown either in a field trial or on a commercial scale, an approval from the Gene Technology Regulator is required," he said.

"To date, the Gene Technology Regulator has not received any applications for commercially growing these crops."

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