The top question we get asked by consumers is whether or not Stemilt fruits are genetically modified. The answer is simple – no, they are not. In an effort to be transparent and without getting into the hotly debated topic of genetically modified or genetically engineered foods, this post will focus on why our apples, pears, cherries, and summer fruits are non-GMO, and how new varieties of fruit that Stemilt grows are developed.
A new apple tree (or other fruit tree) is not grown from a seed as you might think, but rather is grown from an existing tree, and rootstock, that a grower selects for his or her orchard site. A rootstock is the root system of the plant, which produces new growth above the ground. Today’s apples are grown primarily on small, or dwarfing, rootstocks that allow us to manage the height and width of the tree in order to bring it into production faster and make for a more manageable harvest. Growers graft the variety (which essentially is a twig with a bud in it) of fruit they want to grow (say, Honeycrisp apples) onto the rootstock, and through feeding and watering, the tree begins to grow. If all goes right, the first fruits on the tree will appear by the third leaf, or third year after the tree was planted. The tree won’t come into full production until 5-6 years following planting.
Now that you know how a fruit tree is planted in our orchards today, let’s talk about how new varieties are developed. Fruit breeding is a practice that has been in place for decades, and relies on traditional cross-pollination methods to produce a new variety with better qualities or different characteristics. Breeders first identify the traits they want in a new variety, and then find parent apple varieties with those characteristics that might give them the new cultivar they are after. Fruit trees are flowering plants and reproduce through pollination. To create a new variety, breeders harvest pollen from the flowers of the male parent and then brush the male parent pollen onto the female parent’s flowers. The pollen moves down the stigma of the flower and hopefully, fertilization occurs.
Apple breeders make thousands of crosses each year, every year. After the tree produces its first fruits (usually 3 years after planting), the apple gets reviewed for taste and other qualities, and a decision is made on whether it is kept for further testing or discarded. Believe it or not, very few new apples make it onto the next round of testing, which includes additional plantings, tests, and eventually, testing the apple in a commercial orchard environment.
Bringing a new apple variety to commercial production is a long process, so much so that the popular Honeycrisp apples was first crossed back in 1960, but wasn’t released to growers until 1991! Crossing the same two parents again and again also won’t result in the same new apple variety. Just like in humans who have two children who don’t look the same, the fertilization process when breeding apples always produces a unique result.
The traditional breeding method described above is called cross-pollinization, and is the method used for any new variety at Stemilt. It introduces a number of characteristics into the plant, including desired and undesired characteristics. Genetic engineering introduces one or a few specific, desired characteristics without introducing the unwanted characteristics.
At Stemilt, we’re constantly testing new varieties of apples, pears, and cherries. A new variety might help us extend a season, or could have attributes that make it easier to farm in our arid locale. Most importantly, we look for new varieties that will produce a better tasting piece of fruit for you to enjoy!