We Need to Recover Diversity in Apples


By Elena Day

At Christmas I was given a used copy of 1001 Gardens You Must See Before You Die. The preponderance of the 1001 gardens is in England, which is fortunate if seeing the gardens is on one’s bucket list. The one that currently intrigues me is Brogdale in Kent, England.

Brogdale is listed as a Horticultural Trust of 150 acres. It boasts the largest collection of fruit tree varieties in the world, with well over 2,000 varieties of apple.  Apple varieties include the “Decio,” brought to England by the Romans and the 18th century Scottish “Tower of Glamis,” whose flesh cooks to a “sweet, pale lemon puree.”  The orchards also include 337 varieties of plum, 502 of pear, as well as currants, grapevines, rapsberries,  cherries, quinces and medlars.

Medlars ( Mespilus germanica)  are large shrubs or small trees indigenous to Asia Minor and southeastern Europe.  They were widespread in Roman and medieval times. They were eaten in winter after having been softened or “bletted” by frost or after a slow-ripening protected in straw. The medlar looks rotten, turning dark brown when ripe, but medlar enthusiasts claim that the innards are of the  consistency and flavor of applesauce. In medieval times the medlar was referred to as “hairy arse” and there are a number of references, generally of a sexual nature, to medlars in Shakespeare’s plays.

The diversity of Brogdale and of course the character of medlars led me to ruminate on the newly developed Arctic Apple here in North America. The Arctic Apple has been genetically altered by Okanagan Specialty Foods, a Canadian company in British Colombia. The Arctic Apple, unlike the medlar, will never turn brown when cut, bruised or overripe.  The genetic manipulators have inserted bacterial and viral DNA to prevent this.

This variant of genetic manipulation (as well as most others) remains controversial. Unknowns include what happens to the apple trees’ defenses against pests and disease and to people who eat the apples. The U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn’t sponsored research. Arctic Apples do not need Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. The public comment period on Arctic  Apples ended December 16, 2013. The decision to go ahead with introduction of Arctic Yellow Delicious and Arctic Granny Smith is imminent. Although Gerber (owned by Nestle) and MacDonald’s have no plans currently to include the Arctic Apple in baby food or as slices in Happy Meals, this could change.  Think of the market for apple slices in school lunches and  fast food kid meals.  And then  think of  the increased possibilities of importing Arctic Apples, as we have the Galas, from as far away as China and New Zealand. Of course, an argument forwarded by Okanagan for approval is that apples that don’t brown will increase apple consumption, which over recent years has fallen from 20 lbs. per year per person to 16 lbs. (Personnally, I believe decreased consumption of fresh fruits is a result of  the national trend of increased consumption of prepared snacks, chemically engineered to please and addict our taste buds to the optimal amount of corn sweeteners and salt.)

After the defeat, by 1 percent, of the Washington State initiative to label Genetically Engineered/ Modified foods and the strong likelihood of USDA Arctic Apple approval, I was most gratified to read David Maurer’s piece in the Daily Progress (12/08/13) about Tom Burford’s new book Apples of North America: 192 Exceptional Varieties for Gardeners, Growers and Cooks. Burford has advocated for and is now witnessing the “triumphant return” of the apple “in all its diversity.”   Apple varieties decreased beginning around 1950, concurrent with apples being grown for profit (and long distance shipment), not flavor. According to Burford,  20 years ago pomologists were no longer being hired at U.S. agricultural research stations. Now he notes that there are young people at local farmers’ markets selling apples, and consumer palates are liking local and heirloom apples. Not only does Burford recognize the lost diversity of our foods, but “the loss of the culture when food was a focal point of not only nourishing the body, but for entertainment and the art aspect of it.”

Kudos to Mr. Burford and all the young folks engaged in what one might call a new (and local) American agricultural model and who think of the medlar and its place as nourishment and also as art and entertainment.