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Do we sell GMO apple varieties?

We are often asked if any of the apple varieties we sell are GMOs.

The simple answer is 'no', we do not sell GMO apple trees.

All the trees we sell are traditional or modern varieties, developed either by chance, or by cross-breeding from existing apple varieties.

However perhaps a better question would be 'how are apple varieties developed?'.

Whilst the mainstream apple varieties we know today are not genetically engineered, it is important to understand that they are all essentially man-made. To be more precise, they are domesticated forms of wild apple species, which have been tailored to the needs of man over many generations. It is thought the common ancestor of the modern apple is a species called Malus sierversii, which still grows wild in the fruit forests of central Asia. The fruits of Malus sierversii are apple-like, mostly small, and not very palatable - but very diverse. The apples we eat today are from the species Malus domestica - as the name suggests this is the 'domesticated' apple. This domestication is certainly not the same thing as genetic engineering, rather it is selective breeding by humans, over the course of thousands of years - in the same way that your pet dog is distantly related to the wolf, domesticated by ancient humans thousands of years ago

Why are there so many different apple varieties? It turns out that Malus sierversii was very easy to domesticate and adapt to man's requirements because of an interesting characteristic - unlike many other tree species, it does not grow true from seed. If you plant a pip from a Golden Delicious apple tree, the tree that grows from it will not be another Golden Delicious tree. It will be an entirely new variety of apple, inheriting a mix of characteristics from its mother tree and also from the paternal pollen parent. In this respect apples are similar to humans - the child inherits a unique mix of genes from its parents (and grandparents and so on).

So what is the difference between a typical apple variety such as a Golden Delicious, and a GMO apple? It comes down to how they have been developed:

Traditional apples

These arose over the centuries before about 1900, often very localised and adapted to the local climate and disease pressures. New varieties were created by sowing apple pips and choosing the strongest and most flavoursome or useful seedlings, and by deliberately cross-breeding varieties with desirable characteristics in the hope of producing something better.

Many famous apple varieties were discovered this way, as chance seedlings, often growing in rubbish heaps or old orchards where waste apples had been tipped - e.g. Delicious, Bramley's Seedling and Granny Smith to name but a few.

Modern apple development

This started around the beginning of the 20th century, as universities and agricultural research stations started to bring the new knowledge of genetics to apple breeding. This science-led cross-breeding continues to this day, and almost all apple varieties found since 1900 have been developed this way.

However although modern apple development is now very 'high tech', in essence the methodology is no different than it was before - plant lots of seedlings and winnow out the failures over several generations until you get a new variety that can go into production. The only difference is that knowledge of the genetic make-up of different varieties means modern apple breeders can be more certain of finding the mix of characteristics they are looking for.

GMO apple development

So given that all the apples we see in shops today have been genetically adapted by man through selective breeding, what is a GMO apple? There are very few GMO apples available, perhaps the best known being those produced by Arctic Apples of Canada, which are engineered so that slices do not brown when cut. The subtle difference is that these apples are developed by altering genes directly (or potentially) adding genes from different species.

Apple trees are a permanent crop, planted once and then harvested annually, and as a result seem to be a less attractive subject for genetic engineering than annual crops such as corn or soya.

The Future

We have no plans to sell GMO apple trees. This is not a simplistic "GMO is evil" view, rather that we think the practice of genetic engineering is completely at odds with the concept of planting apple trees in the garden or backyard orchard to enjoy the simple pleasure of producing your own home-grown apples. We recognise that there is a fine line between today's GMO apple varieties, and man's long domestication of wild apple species that has led to the diverse range of apple varieties we have today - but that fine line is nevertheless one that we see no need to cross.

You might also be interested in our article about buying organic apple trees.