Pollan, M. 2002. Chapter 1, Desire: Sweetness / Plant: Apple. pg. 1-59 in The Botany of Desire: a plant’s-eye view of the world. Random House Edition, New York, New York.
It felt fitting to grab an apple from the kitchen as I sat down to enjoy Pollans latest installment. My choice tonight was the Lady Alice, both a sweet and beautiful apple I might add. But how much of a choice was it really? How many other apples could I have picked? Well a century ago there were several thousand varieties of apples to choose from, thanks in part to figures such as John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed. However in recent times this immense variety of apples has been lost in the want solely for beauty and sweetness. In only wanting these two qualities, “most of the apples we grow (my Lady Alice included) have the same five or six parents: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, Macintosh and Cox’s Orange” (pg.52). So it really is no great act of faith that the apple I ended up choosing was a Lady Alice.
In fact I had probably eaten this exact same apple before and I will probably eat it again sometime in the future, you see this apple is a byproduct from the parents above, meaning it is genetically identical from generation to generation – a clone. Ensuring this consistence is immensely important for businesses trying to sell the unique characteristics of their apple, and what’s wrong with that one may ask? It’s a tasty and pretty apple after all. Well as Pollan declares, “the domestication of the apple has gone to far, to the point where the species’ fitness for life in nature (where it still has to live, after all) has been dangerously compromised. Use see, while the problems in monoculture for food crops are one thing, monoculture for the apple is a whole other ball game.
Our newly created apple monoculture––”the practice of growing a dwindling handful of cloned varieties in vast orchards has rendered [the apple] less fit as a plant” (pg.52)––means apples require more pesticides than any other food crop, for lost is its “ability to get along on its own, outdoors” (pg. 56). If where not careful the apple may end up sharing the same faith as the potato in Ireland in the 1840’s. You see in the wild there is a coevolution between plants and pests, where they battle “in a dance of resistance and conquest that can have no ultimate victor” (pg.52). But cloning through the process of grafting makes the apple tree vulnerable to viruses, bacteria, fungi, and insects. Like modern varieties of corn if not for human intervention the few commercial varieties of apples we have may soon become extinct.
The bizarre solution to our problems is that very thing which got us here in the first place – artificial selection. It is a matter of urgency for fresh genes to be reproduced from wild ancestors Pollan says. “It’s a question of biodiversity,” Forsline said as we walked down the long rows of antique apples, tasting as we talked. I was accustomed to thinking of biodiversity in terms of wild species, but of course the biodiversity of the domestic species on which we depend––and which now depend on us––is no less important. Every time an old apple variety drops out of cultivation, a set of genes––which is to say a set of qualities if taste and color and texture, as well as of hardiness and pest resistance––vanishes from the earth” (pg.53).