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Akinori Kimura’s MIRACLE APPLES – Chapter 2/24

The thing that had driven Kimura crazy was, of course, pesticide-free farming. Even today, there are many specialists who claim that it’s impossible. They believe you cannot harvest apples without using pesticides. For those familiar with the realities of apple growing, this is a foregone conclusion.

This point may be difficult to understand for anyone other than a farmer.

Agriculture today is heavily dependent on agrichemicals. Even those not involved in agriculture know that pesticides are used in virtually all crop cultivation, and that growing crops without the use of chemicals is very limited. However, it’s not really a question of dependence, or farming not being possible without the use of agrichemicals. There are fruits and vegetables out there which, although they may not be all that appealing, were grown without them.

Many years ago pesticides simply did not exist. Farmers in the Edo Period cultivated rice and grew vegetables without using herbicides or pesticides. As far as apples are concerned, they must have been around in Newton’s day, although the apple which led to the discovery of the law of gravity would not have not been treated with pesticides. If apples could not be grown without using pesticides, the fruit which William Tell placed on his son’s head would not have been an apple. There were no pesticide spraying machines in fourteenth century Switzerland. Pesticides are essentially used to help increase crop yields, reduce manual farm work, and to improve the appearance of produce. At least this is the generally held view.

Whilst this may be true, ask an apple producer today and he’ll tell you that this is an oversimplification. It is not merely a case of yields falling if pesticides are not used. Without pesticides, apple orchards would be ruined.

The extent of crop reliance on pesticides depends to a large extent on the type of crop. Research in Japan suggests that if pesticides are not used, apple yields decline by at least 90 per cent due to damage caused by pests. Cucumbers suffer similar damage from the non-use of pesticides. However, fresh seeds can be used every year to grow cucumbers.

Apples are different. Trees subject to major damage which results in a reduction in yield to 10 per cent or less of annual average yield cannot produce blossom the following year. Without blossom, there will of course be no fruit. In other words, if pesticides are not used for two continuous years, the apple crop will almost certainly drop to zero. Unless pesticides are used, this situation cannot be turned around.

There is a big difference between apples today and the apples in William Tell’s and Newton’s time. Here lies the most important reason why apples cannot be grown without pesticides – improvement in varieties. Apples today are a completely different fruit to early apples.

Adam and Eve are supposed to have eaten an apple in the Garden of Eden, but in the Old Testament it simply says it was the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. What sort of tree the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’ was a mystery. The fruit of the unidentified tree being seen as an apple came about because, in both English and German, the word apple originally meant the fruit of a tree.

The fruit of a tree being synonymous with an apple suggests that people have been familiar with apples since the earliest times, and knew about them before they knew about any other fruit. Charred apple was discovered in Switzerland among four thousand year old remains left by the early inhabitants of Europe. Many archaeologists believe this is evidence that apples were cultivated from this time. Apples were a well known fruit in the Roman Empire, the Greek city-states, and in Ancient Egypt. Hence apples have been cultivated by humans for millennia.

Classified as apple species of the genus rosa, the plant is native across a large area from Western Europe to Asia. The prevalent theory holds that the area from which the apple we eat today originated is the Caucasus Mountain range.

The wild apple was generally small, and was strongly acidic and astringent. It was not a fruit which people today would find palatable. There is still an apple, primarily used for cooking and making the alcoholic beverage cider, called the crab apple, cultivated in Europe and North America. It is a small apple characterized by a sourness similar to other wild apples. It is likely to have been this sort of apple the Egyptians and Greeks ate.

Nonetheless, they knew about grafting techniques at that time. To the extent that grafting techniques are described in Greek literature, it is not difficult to imagine slightly tastier varieties of apple being selected and those varieties spreading. There are said to have been at least twelve varieties of apple known in Roman times. Even though improvements in varieties was nothing like it is today, random improvements over a period of years would have meant steady progress from the time when apple growing started.

This discussion is not limited to apples. It is no exaggeration to say that all the grains, vegetables, and fruit we eat, are plants which people have improved over the course of a long period time. When they ripen, the grains of wild strains of rice and barley detach and get blown far and wide. The reason this does not happen to the barley and rice we eat is to make it more convenient for us to harvest. Have you ever wondered why bananas don’t have pips? Because people in the tropics having selected and grown forms that do not produce seeds.

With Mendel’s discovery of the principles of genetics and, in eighteenth century England, the discovery of the method of crossing two varieties and producing a new one, more and more varieties of apple appeared. People started hybridizing in order to produce tastier apples and different varieties. Once we enter the nineteenth century, variety improvement in America enjoyed a boom. This started with the apples that were carried by hand to America by immigrants from Europe. It was also because the apples produced as a result of improvements to the fruit in the New World were far larger, and much sweeter, than the earlier apple varieties in the Old World. The nineteenth century saw a transition from apples which had existed up until then to a completely different type of fruit. A critical event in the several thousand year history of apple growing occurred in the nineteenth century. The invention of agrichemicals. What today we refer to as the classic pesticides – lime sulphur and Bordeaux mixture – were invented in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Pesticides did not, of course, spread through the farming community immediately after they were invented. It wasn’t until towards the end of the nineteenth century that they came to be used widely in apple growing. This was when the existence of chemicals which could very efficiently eradicate pests and disease fundamentally changed aspects of the way people thought about variety improvement.

Before the days of pesticides, if a tree appeared which bore sweet fruit following variety improvement, it could not be cultivated if the tree was still prone to disease and pest damage. The advent of pesticides, however, meant that this was no longer a problem. The job of fighting pests and disease was taken on by pesticides. Variety improvement aimed at growing trees which produced larger, sweeter apples, could now proceed without having to worry about resistance to disease or pests.

Indeed, virtually all the apples we eat today are varieties which were developed following the introduction of pesticides. They are varieties produced by improvements which have depended on the use of pesticides. This has resulted in the gigantic apples we have today. They bear no resemblance to their distant ancestors, the wild varieties from the Caucasus Mountains. Moreover, apples have lost their inherent resilience. They have become an extremely weak tree incapable of withstanding diseases and pests without the help of pesticides.

The fruit we know as the apple is highly dependent on agrichemicals, and stands as a symbol of farming today.

However they came about, every apple farmer knows from experience how easily their fields will become prey to disease and pests if they don’t spread pesticides. If they use pesticides, but they apply them at the wrong time or use the wrong methods, disease and pests will flourish. What’s more, children of apple farmers are regaled with stories about what a struggle cultivating apples was for their ancestors in the days before the spread of pesticides. In spite of the sort of efforts we find hard to imagine these days, apple growing in Aomori Prefecture has been on the point of collapse numerous times.

Attacks by huge swarms of destructive insects, diseases spreading like wildfire … the history of apple growing is also one of the futile battles against insects and disease. One ray of light illuminating the battlefield was pesticides. Had pesticides not been developed, apple growing would have disappeared in Aomori Prefecture ages ago. The idea of growing apples without pesticides is nothing but nonsense. All apple farmers are convinced of this. The question is, why was Kimura taken in by it?
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