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The Humble Apple and the Challenge of Sustainability

April 30, 2013

Mother Jones this week published a fascinating article on the humble apple. The apple tells the classic story of industrialized agriculture. There were once thousands of varieties of apples grown across the United States, each grown with unique traits and suited for specific purposes. Some were grown for pies and canning, others for eating fresh, others for storage into winter, still others for making cider.

Source: Mother Jones.

Source: Mother Jones.

Today, though, just five varieties dominate U.S. apple production: the Red Delicious, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and Fuji. While others are grown in smaller quantities, thousands of varieties have been lost over time. The Atlantic tells the story of one man’s quest to bring them back. That man, John Bunker of Fedco Trees, has restored between 80 and 100 formerly lost varieties over the past thirty years.

The nature of apple production presents particular challenges and makes John Bunker’s quest even more important. Nearly all apples grown in the United States are produced by grafting a shoot from the desired tree onto a rootstock. This means that apple varieties express a remarkable degree of genetic uniformity. All Red Delicious apples are clones of the original Red Delicious first grown by Jesse Hiatt on his Iowa farm in the 1880s. Planting the seed of a Red Delicious would not give you a tree producing Red Delicious apples. More likely, you’d wind up with crabapples lacking the sweetness or flavor we normally associate with apples. Cloning is necessary to produce apples as we know them.

But cloning also results in crops that are much more susceptible to pests and disease. Apples are particularly susceptible to a wide variety of fungal and bacterial diseases as well as to insects. Consequently, conventional apple production is one of the most chemical-intensive crops grown. Apples occupy the top spot in the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen.” And according to the Pesticide Action Network, most conventionally-produced apples contain high levels of the pesticides Thiabendazole, Diphenylamine (DPA), and Acetamiprid.

The genetic uniformity of apples also raises concerns about the sustainability of the crop. The Great Irish Famine of the mid-nineteenth was sparked, in part, by the genetic uniformity of Irish potato production. As the potato became the staple food of the Irish, an increasing amount of land was brought under production of a single variety of potato. When the potato blight (Phytophthora infestans) struck, it spread easily from one field to another, encountering the same variety of potato—equally susceptible to the disease—in field after field.

The genetic diversity of apples is also threatened by the widespread use of patents. New apple varieties under development are frequently subject to patent protection, severely limiting the ability of farmers to continue to experiment and develop new varieties.

The diversity of apples available at a farmers market, though, represents an important challenge to the genetic uniformity of apples in larger conventional farms and supermarkets. Eating, once again, is a political act.


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