Apple industry challenges will require biotechnology solutions

Eating an apple is already easy; growing apples, on the other hand, is not. First, there’s the weather – hail in the summer, killing cold in the winter. Second, apple trees and their fruits are also attacked by pests at every turn, including insects, rodents, wildlife, fungi, viruses and bacteria.

Apples face tough challenges that will require biotech solutionsGrowers like me use cultural practices to help control some of those pests, such as pruning and training trees, mowing to limit cover and disrupting insects’ mating cycles with pheromones. Even then, it is virtually impossible to grow apples, conventional or organic, without the use of some type of pesticide or fungicide. Without them, there would be considerably fewer apples at the market, and/or you’d lose your appetite for them at the sight of worms, insects and other defects. That said, we use crop protection tools sparingly, both because they are expensive and because the more judiciously we use them the longer they will be effective for us.

Our historic breeding techniques have yet to address serious apple pests, despite generations of effort. Meanwhile, new pests such as the brown marmorated stinkbug threaten to destroy our crops and livelihoods.

Biotechnology can address apple pests and other industry issues much more quickly and efficiently than conventional breeding can. Like a scattershot approach, conventional breeding lacks the ability to breed plants for only those traits we want without getting ones we don’t want. Biotechnology delivers precision breeding, allowing us to select only specific traits.

Our company is working to demonstrate that biotechnology can and should be part of the tree fruit industry’s breeding toolbox, by benefitting consumers and producers alike. Our Arctic® apples are just the first genetically modified (GM) plants that OSF plans to offer; while the entire supply chain benefits from their nonbrowning trait, clearly consumers benefit the most. Currently, we are also working on agronomic solutions, including applying “all apple” genetic solutions to address fire blight and scab, to benefit producers.

I look at it a bit like yin and yang, those complementary opposites that interact to form a greater whole. We consumers want foods that are more convenient and healthful; we producers want sustainable production systems, and to be able to produce high quality crops at a lower cost – neither can get what it wants without the other. Biotechnology stands ready to deliver both wants when given the chance to prove its mettle.

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