I was a Lab Rat for GMO Apples

Site of the Agricultural Research Service’s Food Quality Laboratory

How does a gardenblogger find something to write about in December?  By jumping at the chance to taste-test produce for the USDA, that’s how, at least if it’s just 5 minutes from home.  Anyway, I was curious about the process, starting with the detailed pre-test instructions – no eating/drinking within 30 minutes of arrival.  Science, here I come!

In a brief orientation with the scientist conducting the study, the volunteers learned that that we’d be tasting apples submitted for USDA approval by a “privately owned technology company” in Canada called Okanagan Specialty Fruits.  They were “seeking to use various lab methods” to create “non-browning apple varieties.”  Hmm.

The apples we’d be tasting had been genetically altered to not turn brown after being cut or damaged, thanks to having the enzyme that causes the browning reaction turned off.  We were assured that no foreign genes had been introduced to the apples – unlike transgenics.  The nice scientist said he’d eaten dozens of them himself and hadn’t grown any new digits yet – hahahaha.  (GMO humor – gotta love it!)  And he was honest about the purpose served by such genetic manipulation – to save the growers money.  The hand-out I was given (after identifying myself as a garden writer) phrased it like this:  “The company believes that non-browning apple varieties will provide benefits to growers, packers, retailers and consumers, plus others along the value-chain.”

So on with the test!


The volunteers all had separate cubicles containing a screen that would walk us through the process and a magic box that produced little paper dishes containing numbered apple slices (all of which I figured out with the help of my fellow guinea pigs, who all seemed to be USDA employees who were old hands at this).  Above left you see a new sample ready for me, and to the side, some water and crackers to clear my palate.    On the right you see the last item to appear from the magic box – two chocolate candies.  Not expecting even that much, I was happy to see them.


In total, 12 groups of 10 volunteers would taste and judge the apples.

Curious about the results?  Honestly, they were all Golden Delicious apples, which I don’t particularly like – too soft and mealy to my taste.  So for both GMO and control slices I reported my negative findings, but I suppose that’s helpful in proving that they taste just like their (soft, mealy) parents.


The Campaign Against Non-Browning Apples

Interestingly, within days of munching down these GMO apples I began getting requests to join the fight against them!  This campaign against a non-browning GMO apple called Arctic starts with the familiar Joni Mitchell plea to “Give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees.” I loved that song!  And here’s a fabulous rendition by Joni herself back in the day – 1970.


But could I be sure that this anti-GMO campaign was targeting the very same apples I’d just tested? Minor Googling revealed that yes, Arctics are the brand of apple I was tasting.  (The Okanagan company helpfully declares “We’re in the News!”  They sure are.)

So, Am I Horrified?

Well, no, because like almost everyone, I’ve been eating GMO foods for years – though unwittingly.  And I’ll dare to admit here that I’m a fence-sitter on the issue of GMOs.  But I know many of you have strong feelings about them, so fire away.

Credit for anti-GMO graphic.


  1. I’m a fence sitter in that I don’t want to be be anti-science, but I now lean to the no to GMO side. We just don’t know enough to foresee the negative consequences when we mess with nature. We are already seeing unintended bad things from Roundup resistant crops. Then the safety testing phase is likely to get screwed by corporate interests.

    So they shut off the browning gene. What else does that gene code for or interact with? New research is showing that genes are not this simple one protein, one gene, on off switch. It is far more complex and interactive.

    Then you have to throw in the whole industrial agriculture aspect that is really behind the need for a non-browning apples. It is about free trade and shipping apples over long distances. It is about consumers having unreal expectations further entrenched. This is antithetical to the local, fresh, seasonal food movement. That in a way is more worrying than the GMO apple itself.

    • How many years of data on the safety of GMOs do you need? We’re already at 20 years of data from hundreds of studies with no credible evidence of harm. The consensus among scientists is in. The AMA, FDA, WHO, EASAC, and the Union of Concerned Scientists have all endorsed GM.

      At this point, after decades of study, the burden of proof is on the naysayers as they are the ones making claims that fly in the face of a mountain of evidence.

      • From what I’ve heard and read, you’re right. I’ve asked every scientist I know for their take on the controversy and every one of them agrees with your conclusion. Maybe I call myself a fence-sitter because I don’t know the science myself and can’t adequately defend either position. Plus, I want to avoid heated arguments with anti-GMOers.

        Also, my gut agrees with their guts, telling me not to trust the corporations involved.

      • When I attend my ongoing education classes for my pesticide applicator license and the head extension guy says, “Oh by the way, there is a roundup resistant amaranth weed at the TN border ready to enter NC”, I take that as a direct unintended negative consequence of the use of GMO crops.

        Now farmers will need to switch to 2,4,D or stronger doses or other combinations of herbicides for weed control. I also consider that a very negative consequence that is a direct result of the use of GMO crops.

        Now our food and soil is further saturated in chemicals as a direct result of the use of GMO crops. So you can take your 20 years of research skr and stuff it.

        • Roundup resistance is do to a single use of the technology. I am not a fan of roundup resistant genelines. That doesn’t indict the technology in general only the specific use. It’s like saying fire is bad because you can burn people at the stake while ignoring all the beneficial uses for fire.

          Is there any amount of evidence that would convince you that the general process of genetically modifying organisms is safe?

          • The second example of a very negative consequence that is a direct result of the use of GMO crops is the Bt resistance that is showing up in corn earworms and cutworms.

            This doesn’t even consider the fact that the corn you eat is actually manufacturing Bt internally. You can’t wash it off.

            How many examples do you need before you admit that GMO crops are not perfectly safe and risk free?

            Farmers were warned about this a decade ago and given strict protocol to follow to prevent this. Oops.


        • Yes…those 20 years of studies was paid for by the very corporations that make gmo and chemcial garbage. Independent studies are squashed out and suppressed. Follow the money these people are getting and you will see the truth on this issue. I do not trust the AMA, FDA or USDA or any of the other abc branches of the govt that take huge sums from corporations to protect corporate interests instead of human interests. GMO is just playing with nature in a way that is not healthy. Humanity has survived for thousands and thousands of years without gmo. Cancer used to be rare…now with the huge amounts of chemicals and gmos entering our systems….1 in 3 people will get cancer in their lifetime.

  2. It is quite a dilemma, isn’t it? I’ve done some research looking at both sides of the argument and still can’t make up my mind. I know that science is a double- edged sword; I love technology, but I’m not convinced we humans are present enough to do what is best for the planet or even ourselves, for that matter. Wish there was some definitive answer one way or another, but since I know that we have been genetically modifying apples and other foods by selective breeding for at least a hundred years, I’m less concerned about this than I am about say, organic versus conventional farming because I am convinced conventional farming is harmful to the soil, the water, and us.

    • Have you considered biodynamic style farming. When you say “conventional farming” I am assuming you mean corporate style farming. I agree corporate style farming with the use of large amounts of chemicals and antibiotics is very harmful. Organic or biodynamic farming is closer to the way nature was originally. I am not sure why anyone would think organic farming is bad for the planet.??? Were you joking?

  3. I’d rather use lemon juice to keep apple slices from browning. If the whole apple is browning, it’s a sign it’s overripe and shouldn’t be eaten–artificially preventing it from turning brown won’t make it taste better.

  4. I’m glad you brought up this issue.

    Here’s a video of 14-year-old GMO labeling activist Rachel Parent (Canadian) who will bring you up to speed on most of the basic issues. She knows her stuff – everything she says is 100% correct. (I know as I’ve been studying this subject for twenty years.)


    Here’s a TED talk by Robyn O’Brien. One of her children had a serious health reaction to the processed food that is commonplace for all of us. She sheds light on the possible GMO health issues: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rixyrCNVVGA

    Finally (I’ll keep the list short), the latest film by Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology. It shows what we’ve learned just in the last few years. It’s even more serious than we imagined.


    As you will discover, the problem is that we, and the environment, are ALL lab rats and have been for over twenty years.

  5. My gut reaction to GMOs is NO! NoNoNoNoNO! At tha same time, I’m scientifically fascinated. As stated above, I don’t think we know enough about genetics to be splicing & dicing & switching proteins on/off. Sure we can see benefits in some places. But I’ve learned through the years that every action has certain unintended consequences, good & bad. And some of those unintended consequences we might not see for generations, when it will be too late or almost too late to correct the error.

    Yeah, I know I eat GMOs every day. But I don’t want to, for both my sake & the sake of our environmental future.

  6. Know what you mean about fence sitting. Some people I really respect rant
    (pun intended0 incessantly about the glysophate suppression gene. But full disclosure, I learned the whole story while working for Monsanto’s ad agency where our objective was to increase no-till practices in the South. I learned Eoundup targeted only one enzyme in the plant. In Al Gore’s 1992 Earth in the Balance, he extolled this one enzyme mode of action and that it should serve as a model for the development of new input products,

    I’ve seen the chatter ascribing side effects of RR, and I just can’t buy it. Don’t hate me because I can’t rant about the world is coming to an end because of the adoption of RR crops. If farmers weren’t using glysophate, they’d be using high amounts of products that are truly toxic.

    So I could get longer shelf life with my apples and reduce food spoilage? On the fence on something my kids could be eating directly. I’m so confused on all this. Good to know I’m not the only one

  7. Several scientists who have conducted research on Monsanto GMOs have stated they had to sign non-disclosure agreement contracts and that Monsanto approves or disapproves release of any studies. The FDA/EPA has let Monsanto’s studies show the safety of its GMOs and them approves them for public release based on those “scientific” studies.

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust biased Monsanto’s studies showing its GMOs are safe. How about some independent, non-biased studies on them? Monsanto won’t allow that to happen. They totally control the research with their NDAs and approval of the studies. Still feel GMOs have been proven to be safe? Still trust the “science” of Monsanto? I don’t. The almighty dollar is controlling the “science” not public health and disclosure.

  8. Additionally, the revolving door or government/corporate partnership is at work here also. Numerous corporate executives, who once worked at Monsanto, are now in the regulatory FDA or EPA. Numerous government officials who once were in the FDA or EPA are now Monsanto corporate executives. And then we have Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas who was a Monsanto lawyer making decisions in Monsanto cases that come to the court without recusing himself. The whole process of public safety is corrupt and controlled by money from top to bottom. All the while it is estimated 80-85% of the food in supermarkets has GMOs in them.

  9. When they will finally be available? I can’t wait to try them!
    Apple trees though are very high maintenance. They gets lots of disease so commercial apple orchards spray them on a weekly basis. But I would plant an Arctic Apple in my garden just to stick it to all the GMO fearmongers.

  10. If there is concern with safety, why not label the product? Unwillingness to freely acknowledge the fact that a product is genetically modified does not help to convince me that there are no possible risks.

    Consider: “GMO Myths and Truths – An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops”.


    The primary author is Michael Antoniou, PhD, a reader in molecular genetics and head, Gene Expression and Therapy Group, King’s College London School of Medicine, London, UK. He has 28 years’ experience in the use of
    genetic engineering technology investigating gene organisation and control, with over 40 peer reviewed publications of original work, and holds inventor status on a number of gene expression biotechnology patents.

    • Here’s my issue with that: https://www.gardenrant.com/2013/10/how-to-find-sources-you-can-trust-on-controversial-topics-like-gmos.html
      That’s about advice from a Washington Post food writer on how to find sources you can trust on controversial issues: if a source ONLY mentions the benefits of GMOs (in this example) or ONLY the risks, then don’t trust that source.
      I’d actually dig into a science-based compilation of the negatives AND positives on the subject.

      • I disagree with the reasoning here. Would information that shows both the pros and cons of say, texting while driving, also have validity? (I’m sure a big case could be made for all the benefits there!) But what if the study was pro-texting and could be traced back to a cellphone manufacturer? You must know and trust the integrity of the source and check their sources. And always ask: who stands to benefit financially from this “information”?

        • Susan, I see that you mention the problem of “false equivalency” in your post–that’s an important point. Still, the Washington Post article is biased. In the video Glickman comes out on the side of the biotechnology industry, parroting the false statement that it’s the only hope to feed the world.

    • “GMO Myths and Truths” can’t even get the basic science of horizontal and vertical gene transfer right in their first “myth”. Why should anyone pay any attention to such uninformed and obvious propaganda?

      • considering two of the authors have doctorates and one was a genetic engineer, my word choice of uninformed should more acurately be mendacious.

        • skr,

          I do not have a doctorate and I am not a genetic engineer and I can not speak to horizontal and vertical gene transfer. (My degrees are in mathematics and engineering). However, I have not heard of your qualifications and so in balance I will accept the words of those who have studied this field for decades to be more accurate than yours. (One of the secondary authors is John Fagan who has received over $2.5 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including a Research Career Development Award from the National Cancer Institute of NIH. More than thirty of his papers have been published in leading journals, including Molecular and Cellular Biology, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Journal of Molecular Biology, and Biochemistry.)

          • The problem is he is an outlier and an obvious activist. There are far far more scientists with extensive experience and qualifications working for the FDA, AMA, WHO, EASAC, and UCS that you have to ignore. You can ignore me all you want. But the consensus of scientists and the preponderance of data is far more convincing to me than an obviously one sided tract that tries to erroneously convince people that it’s unnatural for genes to pass from one species to another.

  11. I’ve been watching the rather silly series “Once upon a time” and this discussion reminds me of the line “All magic comes with a price.” So be it.
    You just don’t get to know what that price is at the time.

    • Sometimes there is a price. It started when we first started to farm and it caused health issues. In reality we made our fate by moving away from being hunter/gatherers, and sealed it by initiating the industrial age by buring coal and petroleum. Though I am not really willing to live without electricity, since this technology stuff has made me soft.

      Then there was the breeding of hybrids, especially tripoid hybrids like seedless bananas. They can only be replicated by cuttings, etc.

      Early in the twentieth century the banana of choice was the Gros Michel, but then it was virtually wiped out by a fungus called Panama disease, and all we are left with commercially are Cavendish bananas. And now they are being threatened by a more potent fungus.

      So, yes, we will have no bananas.

      And as history repeats itself, it turns out oranges also have problems. Here is a very detailed article: A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA.

      Here is another saying: it is a bit more complicated. There are no simple answers.

  12. Sorry, but I’m pretty firmly planted (pun intended) on the non-GMO side of the issue. I’m in the process of reading Jeffrey Smith’s “Genetic Roulette” (it’s so depressing, I have to do it in small gulps), and the amount of negative data that Monsanto and others have suppressed is staggering and disheartening. What is it that they’re trying to hide? Why are they so bound and determined to keep GMO’s from being labeled? If it’s so effing safe, as they claim (as they smile and say “trust us'”), they should be PROUD to label it as such, and let consumers decide for themselves. I didn’t agree to be a lab rat, and I still maintain that it can’t be a coincidence that things like diabetes and obesity began to skyrocket in the population within a few years of GMO’s being introduced into the food supply.

    • Sure it can be a coincidence. I’m not saying that GMOs don’t play a role, but until you identify *all the causes of diabetes, or at least demonstrate the process by which GMOs are partly responsible, we can’t assume this. There were many other changes going on simultaneously. More scheduling of children’s lives and an increase of video gaming, for instance, resulting in less physical activity. And a dramatic increase in the use of high fructose corn syrup. I consider these suspects.

  13. I’m pretty open-minded about GMO’s. They have saved papayas from ringspot virus, for instance. But I can’t see why a non-browning apple is necessary. Of course, the grocery stores are full of highly processed foods that I also consider unnecessary, so perhaps I am no judge of consumer desires. I’m with Joni on this one – give me (brown) spots on my apples too!

  14. I just received this from the Cornucopia Institute:

    “GMO Apples?

    The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is poised to approve a genetically engineered apple, called the Arctic Apple®. The public comment period runs through Monday, December 9.

    You can comment directly here:


    gmo.applesOkanagan Specialty Fruits has developed a GMO Golden and Granny Smith apple that is designed not to brown when sliced and exposed to the air. Browning reflects an apple’s freshness – something all consumers are interested in.

    The actual genetic engineering process includes insertion of nptII, neomycin phosphotransferase type II gene from E. coli Tn5. This gene allows the transformed apple tissue to grow on a medium containing the antibiotic kanamycin but confers no benefit to the apple plant.

    Every cell of every GE apple tree, including the fruit and the tree roots, will show resistance to kanamycin. Kanamycin is a commonly used antibiotic in human medicine, used to treat a wide variety of infections.

    Eating an Arctic Apple could transfer the gene for kanamycin resistance into your digestive system. A similar transfer has been demonstrated with GE soy. There is a real possibility that bacteria in the human digestive systems could develop kanamycin resistance. Antibiotic resistance is a major concern among medical professionals.

    Furthermore, the GE apple’s DNA can also spread to bacteria on the plant and in the soil. Orchardists might very well find that controlling diseases of special concern like fireblight in orchards may become much more difficult. And in the soil environment, the GE DNA can persist for at least a year, where it can be taken up by natural soil bacteria and then incorporated into their genetic structure.

    There is no proof that Arctic Apples are harmless, but there is certainly reason to suspect that they may be harmful to humans, wildlife, and the soil environment. Urge the USDA to reject approval of the Arctic Apple. The unknown risks far outweigh the cosmetic value of an apple that doesn’t brown when sliced.

    For additional information, click on the links to read the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Environmental Assessment (EA) and Plant Pest Risk Assessment (PPRA) for the GE Arctic apples.”

    Here’s the link (where you can connect to the above) http://www.cornucopia.org/2013/12/crushed-nutsrotten-apples-pasteurized-nuts-gmo-apples-tell-fda-usda/

    • could you please point me to the study showing dna transfer from the consumption of GE soy? The USDA assessment to which you refer specifically says the risk of horizontal gene transfer between humans or bacteria is negligible.

      Now with regards to the kanamycin, that’s just a bunch of hokum. Kanamycin is a commonly used bacteriacide used is tissue culture. The Arctic Apple doesn’t have a gene for resistance that is can transfer because kanamycin simply doesn’t inhibit growth of plant cells. This is pure fearmongering.

      • actually, I’ll take that last bit about kanamycin back. I’m more familiar with legume manipulation and it appears selective in other plants. This is actually used to tell if the genetic manipulation has occured. Basically what it does is produce a chemical that reacts with the bacteriacide But since the chance of horizontal tranfer is very small the risk is still incredibly minute.

      • skr “But the consensus of scientists and the preponderance of data is far more convincing to me than an obviously one sided tract that tries to erroneously convince people that it’s unnatural for genes to pass from one species to another.”

        skr “could you please point me to the study showing dna transfer from the consumption of GE soy? The USDA assessment to which you refer specifically says the risk of horizontal gene transfer between humans or bacteria is negligible.”

        Interesting. It is natural for genes to move between species and it is highly unlikely for genes to moves between species. Which is it skr?

        I get the clear feeling you are a paid anonymous internet commenter for the sole purpose of spreading confusion in public on controversial subjects that are high profit to certain interests.

      • “Kanamycin is a commonly used bacteriacide used is tissue culture.”

        This is an example of the hand waving distractions of corporate-directed research. The gene transfer to humans will not happen, or course. Nor will this be toxic in any way. But it will allow more kanamycin to be used (if this is not the intent, then what would its purpose be?), which will result in a rapid increase in the resistance of bacteria to it. This will take some years, but in the meanwhile, corporate profits will reward the managers responsible for this decision, as well as any legislatures who approve it (either specifically or in general).

        I am all for high tech in principle, and I think genetic engineering will provide necessary tools for thriving in, and possibly surviving, the coming changes. But ignoring the consequences by not looking at the whole picture is the problem, and proper studies can be used to distract from the real issues.

  15. There is no shortage of articles and studies on the internet and a person could find a study that will say pretty much whatever they want it to say. They all seem to contradict one another so really how is one to know. I decided I needed another way to get information about this and so I took my questions to the farmers. All the conventional farmers and GMO farmers all have the same story. They do what they do because it is easy and it makes them excess amounts of money. BUT they all know it is poisonous and only eat organic. In fact the only farmers I have been able to find in my area that eat their own crops are organic farmers. To me the fact that the farmers consider their crops to poisonous to eat speaks VOLUMES! Now if I knowingly poisoned someone’s food I would be charged with attempted murder and be put in jail, How is what the farmers are doing any different?

  16. Ok found an article about the artic apple and why it’s still controversial:


    But before I’d even go into the GMO thing, the first thing that strikes me is, the reason why everyone hates Golden Delicious apples is we’re doing them wrong. golden delicious are supposed to be picked green and stored. They keep a very long time and finally turn yellow when they are sweet and ready. So, if you find them mealy and gross it’s b/c they’re now over ripe. They’re excellent for apple butter, because it won’t matter if they’re brown, it makes a nice, dark and super sweet brown apple butter.

    Furthermore, we have apples that don’t ever turn brown. many heirloom varieties were chosen for that charateristic so they could be dried for decorative purposes and stay nice and white. They were not very good for eating tho, brown = sugar content, so you can imagine a non-brown apple will not taste good.

    So, if you’re thinking “some GMO could be ok of it’s just speeding up the hybridization process” that’s fine, if that was what we were doing. Taking the gene in the heirloom apple and hybridizing with another till you get a combo that works. But the Artic Apple isn’t doing that.

    Despite what people think, the only review process legally required before this stuff is sold at market, is an environmental review by USDA which is easily blown off, and an FDA review if it involves the typical way of GMO creation using bacteria or viruses etc. FDA controls anything to do with the use of bacteria in food. The other older method was previously too expensive to consider.

    This apple doesn’t need to do that. It didn’t just splice some genes together from other apples. It creates a whole new compound in the apple to suppress the browning enzyme, which will still be present in the apple when you eat it, and has never been tested for human health. It also NEVER NEEDS TESTING under any laws we have, because again despite what we’re told, there are no laws regarding GMO approval before it is sold.

    Personally I think we’d go a long way if we just acted smarter with the current types of apples we have, educating ourselves about which apples to buy in which season and how long they should keep. Some are keepers, some are for out of hand eating and some are for baking, canning or dryng. Know your apples.

    My last thought is this: if your apple never turns brown, how do you know it’s gone bad? When you bite into it and go OMG why did I put that in my mouth?

  17. Susan Stewart, I was thinking the same thing!

    If these apples never turn brown, how will we know when they’re past their prime?

    Clearly, this is a benefit for those who wish to sell the apples. However, it will make it harder for consumers to exercise caveat emptor and know if the fresh fruit is really so fresh.

Comments are closed.