(July 24, 3:37 p.m.) A nonbrowning apple variety and a disease-resistant banana may be the next commodities to test consumer acceptance of biotechnology in fresh produce.

The U.S. has more than 144 million acres of biotech crops under cultivation, but virtually none of that acreage is represented by crops grown for the fresh produce market. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported this year that 80% of the nation’s field corn crop and 92% of soybeans were biotech varieties.

The slow development in biotechnology for fresh produce has been rooted in caution about consumer attitudes. The genetically engineered Flavr Savr tomato was unveiled in 1992 but ran aground amid activist resistance, prolonged regulatory reviews and lukewarm market acceptance.

“There are very few biotech derived fruits and vegetables on the market and there is not too many being actively developed that are close to being on the market,” said Michael Wach, managing director for science and regulatory affairs for the Food and Agriculture Department of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, Washington, D.C.

“I don’t see anybody in the Washington (state) apple industry trying to market a genetically modified apple at this point in time for fear of getting clobbered by the activists,” said economist Desmond O’Rourke, president of Belrose Inc., Pullman, Wash.

However, commercial acceptance of bioengineered apples may not be that far off, said Herb Aldwinckle, Cornell University professor at the Geneva, N.Y.-based New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.

“I think there might be some genetically engineered varieties out within five years, and some of those might be the nonbrowning apple varieties,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cornell’s biotechnology work on disease-resistance for apples — primarily for fire blight and apple scab — is a little further off, he said.

“I can see us having some varieties commercialized between five and 10 years,” he said.

About 50% of the Hawaiian papaya crop is genetically modified (to combat the potentially industry-killing ringspot virus), and Aldwinckle estimated about 20% to 25% of the summer squash supply is grown from seeds developed by biotechnology.

Aldwinckle said Cornell has a small trial of the biotech non-browning apples, developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc., a privately-held agriculture biotechnology company based in Summerland, British Columbia.

Neal Carter, president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, said the firm has a couple of field trials ongoing for five varieties of nonbrowning apples.

He said it is unknown how long the approval process will take, but it could be perhaps two years. That means a limited amount of trees could be going in the ground by the spring of 2011, perhaps under a permit process. Fruit from those trees wouldn’t be expected from those trees for another couple of years.

The company’s patented polypheunol oxidase technology is able to halt browning.

All bioengineered plant varieties marketed in the U.S. must be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tony Freytag, marketing director for Cashmere, Wash.-based Crunch Pak, said a nonbrowning apple could be considered for fresh-cut purposes if the variety turns out to be commercially viable. However, he said Crunch Pak has not been able to test the variety and said any consideration of the variety is premature.

In the event the variety is commercially available, said processors would have to be careful not to overlook microbiological issues just because the flesh doesn’t turn brown.

“We spend a great deal of our time on is controlling the microbiological loads on an apple,” he said. On the other hand, said the nonbrowning variety could be a positive if it eliminates the cost of treating fruit with antioxidants like Nature Seal.

Another mitigating factor in its acceptance could be cost of the product, he said. If fruit from the variety is priced too high, it could be of little value to the fresh-cut industry.

Carter said he believes the Okanagan technology will be accepted by consumers, because the genetic engineering only involves “silencing” an apple gene, not introducing something foreign to the apple. He noted a virus resistant biotech plum variety was cleared without fanfare by the USDA last year.

Wach said bananas may be on the short list of commodities that will benefit from biotechnology.

“Bananas, like papayas, are susceptible to a large number of devastating diseases for which there is no known treatment and no known resistance within the species,” he said.

Wach predicted biotech bananas being developed now in tropical countries will be shipped to the U.S. within 10 years.