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Akinori Kimura’s MIRACLE APPLES – Chapter 9/24

The first fungicide used at this time was Bordeaux mixture, a compound invented in Europe. Kimura had used it once. The name Bordeaux mixture comes from Bordeaux, the famous wine-producing region in France. A fungicide originally used in vineyards, it was recognized that a mixture of copper sulphate and quick lime could protect vines against pests thanks to its powerful anti-bacterial properties in about the middle of the nineteenth century. Its use spread around the world with the overwhelming growth in disease and pests, not only among vines, but also in other crop cultivation.

Methods for growing fruit trees had been changing significantly. Grapes, apples, satsuma oranges, peaches … Individual fruit trees were densely planted in huge orchards. One of the pleasures of travelling through France and Italy was the beautiful prospect of endless vineyards on gentle slopes, but this was a far cry from the beauty of the purely natural. They were landscapes minus all the native plants, insects, and animals.

To the extent that we all benefit from civilization today, it is hard to be critical of these practices.

We only drink wine thanks to the landscape being like it is. This is why we can eat apples and peaches, not to mention rice. Some 6.4 billion people live on earth today. Producing enough food for these people to eat is what it’s really all about.

Be that as it may, nature makes no allowances for human beings’ circumstances. There are forces at work trying to return unnatural environments to nature. Take an environment where the natural ecosystem is maintained, and in which the numbers of one type of insect, for example, are limited within a certain range due to the quantity of food available and other organisms which prey on those insects. A feedback mechanism is at work in the ecosystem. This feedback does not function in an apple orchard. If you point a microphone at speakers, the speaker noise picked up by the microphone is amplified infinitely, causing a phenomenon known as ‘howling’. Something very similar happens inside an ecosystem.

Leaf-eating insects are known as herbivores. In the natural world, herbivores are destined to be food for other animals. Herbivores, and this means mammals and fish, as well as insects, can give birth to many young. A proportion of them will be eaten by meat-eating animals. Where there is an inexhaustible supply of food, however, and in this case apple leaves, numbers no longer decrease. Meat-eaters, destined to perish once they have eaten all the herbivores, do not produce as many offspring as herbivores. When, thanks to an abundance of food, the increase in herbivores exceeds a certain threshold, balancing mechanisms based on meat-eaters cease working. In the same way as when a microphone picks up speaker noises and the sound is infinitely amplified, the young, which should be decrease in numbers as they are eaten, do not diminish. They survive and become parents of the next generation and so on. This results in an explosive increase from one generation to the next. There are several generations of pests in an apple orchard in the course of a year. In human terms, it would mean a hundredfold increase in no time at all. This was the shape apple orchards were in a hundred years ago.

They may only be insects, but they can be a terrifying prospect. Records of the damage caused by huge swarms of migratory locusts in the grain-growing regions of China stretch back to ancient times. With the larvae of some species of locust, increases in numbers and population density can even bring about changes in their physiology. Their wings and hind legs lengthen to allow them to fly long distances, transforming them into a marauding horde which acts as a single entity, devouring any vegetation in its path.

Because their appearance and behaviour change significantly in what is known as the locusts’ gregarious phase, until the start of the twentieth century they were considered a different species to ordinary locusts. The ancient Chinese called them oriental migratory locusts.

In the Edo Period, rice in Japan was so badly devastated by the spread of an insect called the whitebacked planthopper it caused a major famine. They were as big a natural threat as tidal waves and forest fires.

Whilst migratory locusts and planthoppers don’t spread to apple orchards, of all the crops people grew, apples were the trees which were the most readily affected by diseases and pests. People these days just about manage to withstand these menaces and produce apples thanks to Bordeaux mixture and the agrichemicals developed subsequently.

Kimura stopped using these pesticides. The writing was on the wall. And it came to pass. Disease was rampant, and pests proliferated. Without pesticides, all that lies ahead for apple orchards is devastation.

What he experienced was what his predecessors had gone through a hundred years earlier. Had applying shōchū or wasabi worked, no-one would have had to struggle. For thirty years or so from 1887, thousands of apple farmers and agricultural scientists confronted the same problem as Kimura, and like him tried out many ingenious schemes. After decades of struggle, they found the grail they sought in pesticides. Kimura was trying to rewrite history. He was overly confident.

Kimura’s words ‘I was hurtling along the road to hell’ are no exaggeration. Kimura was indeed heading for the worst possible scenario. He was turning the history of apple growing in Japan on its head and rushing headlong towards disaster.
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