The History of Genetically Modified Produce

Jan 2, 2017 | Sustainable Agriculture | 0 comments

The Dirt:
At D2D we have talked a lot about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in “big ag,” such as genetically modified (GM) corn and soybeans—but the controversy has now spread to fruits and vegetables. While we certainly do not want to exhaust our readers on GMOs, it is important to share sustainable technology that enhances nutrition, improves production, reduces chemical usage, and is not harmful to humans. Thus, we examined the history of GM produce and asked the produce industry how they feel about GM crops. Here is what we found…

In the history of GM produce, there have been some scientific successes and some commercial failures. The first GM produce item commercialized for human consumption was the FLAVR SAVR™ tomato.

Calgene, a biotechnology company based in Davis, CA wanted to produce a tomato with improved taste and a longer shelf life. To accomplish this, the company’s researchers targeted a gene for an enzyme affecting tomato softening during the ripening process. Using methods to block expression of the gene, the researchers were able to delay ripening by suppressing the accumulation of this enzyme resulting in the FLAVR SAVR™ tomato.

The FLAVR SAVR tomato was the first commercially available GMO food, marketed for sale in the United States in 1994.

Conventional tomatoes are picked unripe off the vine for easier handling and longer shelf-life purposes. With the FLAVR SAVR™ tomato, Calgene attempted to develop a tomato that would ripen on the vine while not softening in the process.

Unfortunately, although the fruit’s shelf-life was extended, it did not decrease fruit softening nor did it improve fruit firmness. However, through additional breeding, the FLAVR SAVR™ tomato achieved tastier varieties favored by consumers who were willing to pay a premium price for the tomatoes at supermarkets. Nonetheless, due to high production costs at the time, the FLAVR SAVR™ tomato was never profitable and is no longer commercially available.

Around the same time the FLAVR SAVR™ tomato was being developed, the University of Hawaii began working on a papaya variety resistant to Papaya Ringspot Virus. Beginning in the 1970s, the virus started infecting Hawaiian papaya trees, and by the 1990s Hawaii’s cash crop was on the verge of being wiped out. To protect the trees, researchers essentially created an internally produced vaccine against the virus. By 1999, the GM papaya was being commercially grown in Hawaii and now makes up 75% of the total Hawaiian papaya crop. GM technology saved Hawaii’s papaya industry as researchers distributed the GM varieties to Hawaiian farmers free of charge. This became the first GM produce success story.

Symptoms of Papaya Ringspot Virus on Papaya tree and fruit (wikipedia)

Citrus greening disease on mandarin oranges (wikipedia)

For the past 10 years, oranges, like papaya, have been plagued with a destructive disease called citrus greening. The disease is transmitted by a tiny bacteria-carrying insect interfering with the nutrition of an orange tree – first damaging the fruit and eventually destroying the tree.

Citrus growers have had to increase their pesticide use and are even considering spraying antibiotics in an attempt to save orange groves from destruction. After unsuccessfully looking for naturally immune trees, the industry began looking at genetically engineering trees to be resistant to the disease. Southern Gardens, a subsidiary of U.S. Sugar has developed a good prospect using a spinach gene that produces a protein environmentally inhospitable to the disease-causing bacteria. Researchers at the University of Florida have also developed a genetically engineered orange tree resistant to citrus greening using a gene isolated from a plant in the mustard family. Both of these projects are in the experimental phase and are several years away from commercial production.

What is new to the market?

Currently there are two new GM crops moving into the agricultural market:

  1. Arctic® apple (developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits)
  2. Innate® potato varieties (developed by R. Simplot Company)

Arctic Apples


Innate® has up to a 44% reduction in bruising compared to conventional Russet Burbank potatoes.
These two companies believe their varieties are the new wave of biotechnology. Instead of using genes from a different organism, the apple and potato varieties modify the plant’s own DNA. These companies are using RNA interference (RNAi), a natural process in cells that silences or turns-off specific RNA molecules blocking the formation of specific proteins.
In a previous article, we discussed the gene editing technology called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Spaced Short Palindromic Repeats). Unlike CRISPR, RNAi represses or silences a particular gene in an organism’s DNA rather than editing the DNA. When DNA is edited, as is the case with CRISPR, the resulting revisions are heritable ‒ i.e., passed on to future generations. (For additional information about the genetic code and new technologies being used to modify genetic traits, see our article on CRISPR.)

For example, the Arctic® apple variety was created by turning off the synthesis of the protein that causes browning. Arctic® apples reduce the need for preservatives used in the sliced apple industry to slow down the natural browning process of cut apples. Okanagan Specialty Fruits announced the first commercial harvest of Arctic® Golden apples in October and the upcoming sale of fresh sliced apples in North American test markets in early 2017.

Likewise, in Innate® potato varieties, several different proteins are silenced resulting in a potato with reduced bruising and lower levels of sugars and the amino acid, asparagine – both of which contribute to the formation of acrylamide (a chemical that can cause nerve damage and is labeled a likely carcinogen by the U.S. EPA) when potatoes are exposed to high heat.

Browning in apples and potatoes along with bruising and acrylamide production in potatoes are all traits deemed undesirable by consumers as well as farmers.

“The No. 1 consumer complaint [about potatoes] is black spot bruise.”    

— Haven Baker, general manager of plant sciences at the J. R. Simplot Company

Significant volumes of food are wasted when farmers and consumers throw out bruised and/or brown apples and potatoes. Both Innate® potato and Arctic® apple varieties can reduce this waste. Other benefits include a reduced need for chemical treatments.

Recently, the FDA approved the second generation of Innate® potato varieties having all the previous variety’s traits plus enhanced cold storage capability and late blight resistance. A late blight resistance potato can reduce the amount of fungicide spray on the crop by fighting the disease from within.

However, even with the use of more natural ways of modifying produce traits and with necessary approval from the U.S. government regulators and support from consumers and farmers, some of the biggest potato buyers, like Frito-Lay and McDonald’s, say they will not use Innate® potatoes.

Without major buyer support, potato and apple growers will not plant these new varieties and leading industry associations are not putting their support behind these products.

Unfortunately, the critics of GMO technology have capitalized on the common misunderstanding of this technology, which has made consumers very wary of genetically engineered crops primarily due to a lack of understanding (see more discussion of this in our article, GMOs – A Refresher).

Anti-GMO groups have also urged food retailers and manufacturers to denounce use of GMO ingredients in their food products. Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group based in Washington D.C., launched a petition demanding McDonald’s renounce GMO potatoes. Because consumers are still not comfortable with GMO technology, Food and Water Watch believes food manufacturers and food service companies should reject ingredients and food items with this technology

Wendy’s Company, Gerber, and McDonald’s have all come forward and said they will not be offering Arctic® apples on their menu or using them in their products.

We don’t see that there’s any flaw in the technology as far as a safety issue.” — Wendy Brannen, former director of consumer health and public relations, U.S. Apple Association. She went on to say that there are concerns related to consumers’ response to the new GM apple.

However, Jim Bair, CEO and president of the U.S. Apple Association acknowledges that the USDA has no authority to deny approval of a biotechnology food when the scientific evidence shows no risk to consumers or the environment. In light of this fact, Mr. Bair says the industry’s “job, then, is not to express support or opposition but to continue to provide calming, accurate information to consumers including the fact that all apples are safe, healthy, and nutritious.”

The apple and potato industries believe the future of the Arctic® apples and the Innate® potato varieties will be decided by consumers and not by regulatory approval. Farmers who grow apples and potatoes are reluctant to plant the GM varieties due to negative public opinion of GM crops.

Another major problem concerns other countries banning American GM products from their markets. Kate Woods, Vice President of the Northwest Horticultural Council (NHC), said the Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry does not have a problem with the science of GM crops – all their concerns are related to marketing and exports. Washington State alone exports 30% of its apple crop to over 60 countries each year – many of which have started to ban GM products from entering their markets. NHC is concerned that countries where the Artic® Apple has not been approved may try to create trade barriers by requiring additional processes to prove that non-GMO apple shipments do not contain GMO apples.

“Farmers should have the ability to utilize technology to improve production and environmental stewardship. The potato industry wants to give consumers what they want – including safe and diverse products at a fair price.” —John Keeling, Executive Vice President and CEO of the National Potato Council.

Countries importing GM products still require approval on a product-by-product basis at a significant cost to companies producing these products. J. R. Simplot Company has applied for international approval of its potatoes in several major markets. They started the process with Canada, Mexico, and Japan with plans to move into other parts of Asia. The company is optimistic about getting approval from these foreign markets soon. As a much smaller company with fewer resources, Okanagan Specialty Fruits has so far only sought approval for its apples in the U.S. and Canada. U.S. approval was obtained in March 2015.

The Bottom Line:

GMO technology is capable of reducing chemical usage as well as plant and human diseases which benefits farmers, the environment, and consumers alike. However, farmers, highly aware of negative public opinion, have been reluctant to take on the financial risks to grow a new product. Consumers’ choices affect the business decisions of farmers, food manufacturers, and the food industry as a whole, which in turn affects the produce diversity and availability.


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