The science studies, including the final environmental assessment and a plant pest risk assessment, are upcoming in the Federal Register. According to the USDA's announcement, these reviews have found that Arctic® apples "are unlikely to pose a plant pest risk" and deregulation "is not likely to have a significant impact on the human environment."
As Dr. Steve Savage notes, the Arctic apple works through a mechanism called RNAi, a way to "turn off" a gene – in this case the genes for the enzymes that cause apples to brown when cut. RNAi is a common, natural means of genetic regulation in plants, animals, insects and many other groups, but opponents of biotechnology were trying to portray it as something worrisome. Environmentalists and a few sympathetic journalists had tried to contend this was new and dangerous, but their efforts failed in the science community.
APHIS completed an environmental assessment (EA) to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to insure no detrimental impact on humans and no plant pest risk to agricultural rops or other plants or plant products. The Act defines a plant pest as organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, or insects that can cause harm to agricultural crops or other plants or plant products. APHIS conducts rigorous scientific reviews to make sure that a new genetically engineered plant does not pose a plant pest risk. If the science clears it, the new GE plant is allowed for sale, as happened here.
Consumers will have to wait a while, though, since apple trees take several years to produce significant quantities of fruit.
These Arctic apple cultivars were developed through the use of biotechnology by Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., a small, grower-led company based in Canada, and other nonbrowning Arctic varieties are expected to follow. Neal Carter, president and founder of OSF, said this announcement is a monumental occasion for his team, "The commercial approval of Arctic apples, our company's flagship product, is the biggest milestone yet for us, and we can't wait until they're available for consumers."
They estimate that Arctic apples will be commercially available in late 2016 in small, test-market quantities., though they have been grown in field trials for over a decade and are likely the most tested apples in existence.
Just like any other new apple variety, it will take many years before nonbrowning Arctic fruit is widely distributed but the approval is good news for people who think a little browning means an apple has gone bad. Arctic apples are just like your grandmother's apples, but will get thrown out for no reason a lot less.