Editor’s Note: Jennifer Armen is vice president at Okanagan Specialty Fruits, the apple grower, processor, and genetics business that developed the Arctic apple range of non-browning apples. Founded over 20 years ago in Canada, “to explore opportunities to use biotechnology to boost fruit consumption – and boost growers’ sustainability at the same time,” according to a company blog post, Okanagan was acquired by global biotech firm Intrexon in April 2015.
We spoke to Armen ahead of her speaking slot at Future Food-Tech Summit in San Francisco on March 21-22 to find out more about how the business has developed and the apple varieties it is selling to the public today.
When did you start working for Okanagan?
About 10 years ago, the first six of which as a consultant, and then when we were purchased by Intrexon four years ago, I joined the company full time.
What were you consulting on?
Originally I became connected to Neil Carter through a mutual acquaintance to work on some industry relations activities, primarily targeting the apple industry. It was largely educational for the industry so I spent a lot of time speaking with either apple industry associations and members of the apple industry to apprise them of the work we were doing and our planning.
From there, we expanded that role into working with produce biotech industry; it was important to us early on to make sure we kept our various stakeholders informed of our activities.
What are the varieties and background in their development?
Our first two products we’re bringing to market now are the Arctic Golden and the Arctic Granny, derived from the Golden Delicious and the Granny Smith. In both cases, we’ve turned off the enzyme that causes browning using RNAi interference. We’re often asked why we started with those two varieties; if you look back 20 years ago, the number one, two and three varieties were Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and Golden Delicious. Today that’s changed, although they’re still pretty popular.
Are your apple varieties classified as GMO?
Yes, technically we use biotechnology to affect the process. We utilize apple genes to turn off apple genes, so when we insert duplicate copies into a plant’s DNA, the plant recognizes there are two copies of the same gene and it chews it up and spits it out, turning off the gene in question. It is like when the body gets a virus, it recognizes something is wrong with that and the body deals with it.
If you’re not introducing foreign genetics, why is it still GMO?
Because we use classic biotechnology to introduce the genes. There is a promoter we use to help with the gene insertion so it’s more the tool that was used to affect the change that’s foreign.
Are any of the newer gene editing tools relevant or interesting for your work?
We have been looking at that, but sometimes it’s just not the right tool for the purpose. Our scientists today say it isn’t the best way to go about doing what we’ve done, even if we had those tools available 20 years ago.
How long did it take to develop the varieties?
We were founded 22 years ago. After a couple of years setting up, there were five years for the science to be proven and then it takes another period of time to plant the trees and collect the data, and then go through the regulatory process. Especially with a tree plant that takes 5 years to come to full production; you can generate field data in two to three years, but it takes a while to generate the data package for regulatory purposes.
When will the apples be on the market?
We have both fresh products in the marketplace today as well as dried apple bits that you can buy online.
What were some of your experiences communicating what Okanagan was doing to the apple industry?
The apple industry was concerned because they didn’t know what to think about what we were doing. They didn’t understand what we were doing or how we were going about it so we had to educate a lot. And there were many myths generated by various people and organizations and it was our responsibility to dispel those myths. We worked hard to do that and the apple industry today recognizes that we are offering another choice to the consumer.
How have consumer and industry attitudes to GMO changed since you’ve been working at Okanagan?
There will always be a contingent of the population that chooses not to adopt the practice and that’s really just fine, but I think generally speaking we see more consumers and industry people recognize that biotechnology is a very powerful and effective tool to create new varieties and another step in the evolution of breeding new varieties. We have seen attitudes shift among industry players too. But with consumers what’s been interesting is the remarkable consistency of their response when asked about Arctic apples; there’s a very large moveable middle and when they can understand just bit more about what biotech is, how it works, and relates to them personally, they’re supportive.
Sustainability messaging is important to many people, particularly when they understand that 40% of apples tend to get wasted at home and they can relate very well to when apples turn brown from oxidation. Beyond that, Arctic apples offer a great taste, smell and fantastic eating experience, and that’s what matters to them most.
Are other growers growing your apples?
Currently we are growing all our own products in a fully vertically integrated business model, so we’re not only the tech producer; we’re also the grower, processor, packer, shipper and consumer marketing.
We’re doing it all but we are exploring the opportunity to work on a contract basis with some growers with the intention to maintain ownership of the fruit and the brand.
What’s the journey for you been like?
Crazy would be a word for it; it’s been a heck of a ride and it’s not over yet.
What value have you gleaned from being acquired by Intrexon?
Over the course of my career, I’ve been involved in many M&As and I must say working with Intrexon has been very smooth and really the best process one could hope for. Having them as a parent company has really allowed us to do things we otherwise might not have been able to execute on, so it’s been the best of both worlds in that respect. And of course, we are the expert in the world of apple production and handling, while we can collaborate with them on the science and regulation side.