Apple Diversity has Grown

by on April 30, 2013 at 7:31 am in Economics, Food and Drink, History | Permalink

Mother Jones has a fun piece on apple hunters, people who track down long-forgotten apple varieties, sometimes to a single, ancient tree which they then clone in order to resurrect its unique apples. It’s a fun, human-interest story but Mother Jones also repeats a number of errors about apple diversity. Most notably:

In the mid-1800s, there were thousands of unique varieties of apples in the United States, some of the most astounding diversity ever developed in a food crop. Then industrial agriculture crushed that world. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties to promote worldwide, and the rest were forgotten. They became commercially extinct—but not quite biologically extinct.

Mother Jones is tame compared to The New Internationalist which really ramps up the imagery:

Lincoln was assassinated. So were Washington and Jefferson. In fact all three Lincolns were wiped out. In the end it wasn’t so much an assassination as a massacre, with 6,121 of the 7,098 American apple varieties that blossomed last century now extinct….In less than a century, market pressures for uniformity have slaughtered crop diversity.

All of this is highly misleading at best. The innovative Paul Heald and co-author Sussanah Chapman show that the diversity of the commercial apple has increased over time not decreased (pdf). It is true, that in 1905 W.H. Ragan published a catalog of apples with some 7000 varieties. Varieties of apples come and go, however, like rose varieties or fashions and Ragan’s catalog listed any apple that had ever been grown during the entire 19th century. (Moreover, most varieties are neither especially good nor especially unique). At the time Ragan wrote, Heald and Chapman estimate that the commercially available stock was not 7000 but around 420 varieties. What about today?

The Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory for 2000 lists 1469 different varieties of apples, a massive gain in terms of what growers can easily find for sale. The Plant Genetic Resources Unit of the USDA, in Geneva, New York, maintains orchards containing an additional 980 apple varieties that are not currently being offered in commercial catalogs. Scions from these trees are typically available to anyone who wishes to propagate their variety. The USDA numbers bring the total varieties of apples available to 2450.

In fact, there are more than 500 varieties of apples from the 19th century commercially available today–thus there are more 19th century apples available today than probably at any time in the 19th century!

It is true, of course, that when you go to a typical supermarket there aren’t hundreds of varieties of apples for sale but neither were there hundreds of varieties for sale in the past. In fact, I strongly suspect that the average consumer today has more choices of apple than ever before. I stopped in at Whole Foods last night and counted seven varieties of apple for sale, that’s amazing. Over the year, Whole Foods probably sells 15 varieties. Moreover, I likely also consume other varieties in pies, juice and cider. A few more varieties are available a short drive from my home.  Indeed, with all these choices it’s a wonder that Barry Schartz isn’t complaining about information overload and choice exhaustion.(Isn’t it interesting how critics of markets always find something to complain about? Either the market is overloading us with choices or tyrannizing us with too few choices.)

It is true that in a large and diverse country such as the United States there were probably more apple varieties grown in significant numbers in the 19th century but that confuses geographic diversity with what we actually care about which is consumption diversity or option availability. I explained this idea in my post, What is New Trade Theory? on Paul Krugman’s Nobel prize.

Consider the simplest model (based on Krugman 1979).  In this model there are two countries.  In each country (or region), consumers have a preference for variety but there is a tradeoff between variety and cost, consumers want variety but since there are economies of scale – a firm’s unit costs fall as it produces more – more variety means higher prices.  Preferences for variety push in the direction of more variety, economies of scale push in the direction of less.  So suppose that without trade country 1 produces varieties A,B,C and country two produces varieties X,Y,Z.  In every other respect the countries are identical so there are no traditional comparative advantage reasons for trade.

Nevertheless, if trade is possible it is welfare enhancing.  With trade the scale of production can increase which reduces costs and prices.  Notice, however, that something interesting happens.  The number of world varieties will decrease even as the number of varieties available to each consumer increases.  That is, with trade production will concentrate in say A,B,X,Y so each consumer has increased choice even as world variety declines.

Increasing variety for individuals even as world variety declines is a fundamental fact of globalization.  In the context of culture, Tyler explains this very well in his book, Creative Destruction; when people in Beijing can eat at McDonald’s and people in America can eat at great Chinese restaurants the world looks increasingly similar even as each world resident experiences an increase in variety.

Thus it may well be the case that more apples varieties were grown in large quantities in the 19th century but there are both more varieties commercially available today (our stock of genetic diversity is higher) and individual consumers have low-cost access to more apple varieties than ever before.

1 Ray Lopez April 30, 2013 at 7:51 am

Let me be the first to comment: apples are diverse today THANKS TO PLANT PATENTS. And what about potatoes? Why are they not as diverse as apples? Simple. US patent law as applied to plants does not, by law, cover asexually reproducing plants, and that would be potatoes. All because of anti-plant patent farmer types.

2 john personna April 30, 2013 at 8:02 am

Interesting. My thought was that “named types” were a poor proxy for genetic variance. I guess the patent system you describe would encourage an expansion of named type, even with small (or “no” if you can sneak it by) genetic variance.

That said, I think the broad point is valid, that we do have a deep reserve of apple variance … though it would best be measured by standard deviation in a genome, or something.

3 Andrew' April 30, 2013 at 8:45 am

I’m sure a good bit of variety in apples is desirable, but as I heard a doctor say about medical treatment options, if there are numerous treatments that usually means they all suck.

4 Alex Tabarrok April 30, 2013 at 8:24 am


You have patent law backwards.. US patent law covers asexually reproducing plants, it’s sexually reproducing plants that are traditionally not covered (they can now be covered under gene patents). The potato is asexually reproducing but specifically exempted as a special case. On the larger point there is no evidence that plant patents have increased diversity, see Heald and Chapman cited in the post and the work of Moser and Rhode on roses.

5 john jpersonna April 30, 2013 at 9:42 am

You are right of course. I think Ray’s theme is correct though that patent law has encouraged Apple “innovation.” And as an aside, both apples and potatoes can be grown from seed, but asexual cloning is “easy” in both. (TIL that the seeds of potatoes are called “true seed” to distinguish from asexual seed potatoes.)

I quote innovate because as I say above, I suspect patent law has encouraged more “naming.”

6 Ray Lopez April 30, 2013 at 10:23 am

Professor AT, thanks for the correction, but it appears we are both wrong. In fact, as you may be aware, sexually reproducing plants can be patented after 1970 with the PVPA (administered by the USDA, not the PTO), and in fact you can patent sexually reproducing plants with patents, as you say, see this article:

As for the Moser and Rhode paper you cite on roses, I would limit its findings to roses only (perhaps European competition, which does not patent roses due to EU law, is a bigger factor in innovation than patents?), and note Moser et al in fact support the contention that intellectual property rights protection (“IPR”) does help plant innovation (though it also credits public aid), in particular cotton, the fabric of our lives, see this from the paper:

This chapter uses historical data on patents and registrations of new plant varieties to examine the effects of the Plant Patent Act on biological innovation. Evidence on a later Act, the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) of 1970, is mixed. The PVPA complemented the PPA by extending IPRs to plants that reproduce “sexually” through seeds, such as wheat, soybeans, or
cotton. Survey results suggest that it encouraged research expenditures and “stimulated the development of new varieties of wheat and soybeans” (Butler and Marion 1985, Perrin, Kunnings, and Ihnen 1983). Most of these increases in research investments, however, came from the public sector, and there is little evidence that crops, and specifically wheat, performed
better after 1970 (Alston and Venner 2002).2 For cotton, on the other hand, changes in acreage and in the variety of cotton crops suggest a positive effect of IPRs (Naseem, Oehmke, and Schimmelpfennig, 2005).

Lern somting neu everydai.

7 Euripides April 30, 2013 at 10:11 am

There are also many different types of potatos. Potatos originated in the Andes (Bolivia and Peru). I have had some delicious potatos in that region of the world, the blue ones are amazing! Unfortunately we did engineer the biggest and more devoid-of-taste potatos in the US. Why do you think we have to get them “loaded” before we can eat them?

8 Brandon April 30, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Charles Mann’s book 1493 talks about the globalization of food in the post-Columbian contact world, specifically about potatoes and maize and the huge varieties that are still grown.

9 joshua April 30, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Never thought I’d see a discussion about “Patent” and “Apple” that wasn’t talking about phones or computers.

10 Jim April 30, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Apple trees are reproduced asexually, by grafting. The rootstocks are seedlings but the productive part of the tree is clone from one plant grafted onto as many rottstocks as possible.

Apples are more diverse than potatoes simply because there is more demand for different varieties of apples than for potaotes. My store carries about four or five potato varieties at any time and about ten apple varitieis at anyone time (granted this is western Washington, but yoyu will probably see something simalar where you are.)

Why si demand for varitety greater for apples thna for potaotes? One reaosn is the ability to store apples. Notice how the selection of apples changes through the off-season. Another is that a variety of apple that’s good for eating raw is not so good for cooking. that doesn’t apply to potatoes.

11 widmerpool April 30, 2013 at 8:00 am

As long as I can keep buying Braeburns I’m good.

12 john personna April 30, 2013 at 8:06 am

I suspect the supermarket names are groupings of those patent names, with many “Granny Smiths” for me.

13 veobaum April 30, 2013 at 8:48 am

I am confused. Mac, ipod, ipad..?

14 Dave T April 30, 2013 at 8:52 am

There is a documentary based on a book by Michael Pollan called “The Botany of Desire” that talks about the history of the Apple tree — that’s where I first learned that most Apple trees make garbage Apples (Apples that don’t taste good but crafty Americans used them to make booze). As a bonus, they also cover tulips, Dutch flower auctions, and marijuana.

15 Brandon April 30, 2013 at 9:58 am

Great documentary, and I think it’s still available on Netflix.

16 john c April 30, 2013 at 10:54 am

a recent book (I can’t locate jsut now) about the legendary “johnny Appleseed” makes the same point about the extraordianry diversity of wild apples that existed in 18th century north america. NOT talking about the ‘commercially available” species on which the article focuses to make its point.

i echo another commenter’s observation about the variety of potatoes in central, south america versus what is availbe in the U.S.

17 john personna April 30, 2013 at 9:05 am


We used microsatellite markers and an unprecedented large sampling of five Malus species throughout Eurasia (839 accessions from China to Spain) to show that multiple species have contributed to the genetic makeup of domesticated apples. The wild European crabapple M. sylvestris, in particular, was a major secondary contributor. Bidirectional gene flow between the domesticated apple and the European crabapple resulted in the current M. domestica being genetically more closely related to this species than to its Central Asian progenitor, M. sieversii. We found no evidence of a domestication bottleneck or clonal population structure in apples, despite the use of vegetative propagation by grafting. We show that the evolution of domesticated apples occurred over a long time period and involved more than one wild species.”

18 Antoine April 30, 2013 at 9:21 am

On a related note I’d like to hear from our hosts on the current US-European trade negotiations .
I follow the French media and the French are up in arms about a possible liberalization of the exchange of “cultural products”. This is a huge topic in France right now. The French contend that cultural liberalization will only increase the pace of cultural homogenization, or Americanization, throughout Europe. The result will be the destruction of local european local cultures based on centuries of European learning and humanism at the expense America’s trivial and unreflective consumerized “sub-culture” which makes consumers out of citizens and destroys individuality and free-thinking. The French have been successful in earlier treaties to obtain a “cultural exception” clauses which exclude cultural goods from trade agreements . The European trade negotiator has indicated that the cultural exception will not be put in jeopardy but the French fear that the internet presents a new, possibly greater ,threat .

In any case , I’d like to hear what free trade economists have to say about this.

19 JWatts April 30, 2013 at 12:16 pm

The European trade negotiator has indicated that the cultural exception will not be put in jeopardy but the French fear that the internet presents a new, possibly greater ,threat .

I think the internet is a greater threat to cultural conservatism than any of the items in the trade treaty. Perhaps, France can build a Great-Wine&Cheese Internet Firewall and block non-French internet sites?

20 sourcreamus April 30, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Cowen has written a book about the success of the American culture market. You may want to check that out.

21 agorabum April 30, 2013 at 8:27 pm

They just need to label them as “craft” or “heritage” products and they will fly off the shelf…
In seriousness, the greatest threats are between French mass produced items and American mass-produced items. There will always be a market for the niche and local. After all, in America itself, what is the biggest expanding market? It is the craft items, like microbrews, locally produced cheeses, etc. A society that becomes overly homogenized will seek variety, which is what happened in many mass-produced markets. You can’t even say the American supermarket is the same; the Trader Joes is different than the Whole Foods is different from the Albertsons.
For media, the technological tools (smart phones, internet) presents the most danger to provincialism; the tools allow locals to see/hear/experience new ideas. And that proves the most danger to the inertial response “because that is the way we have always done things here.” Or, as a wise man said, it’s tough to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Karl Hungus.

22 Adrian Ratnapala May 1, 2013 at 5:18 pm

I might be wrong, but Antoine seemed a bit toung-in-cheek in his original question. In Fance is it actually common to claim that trivial, unreflective Americans are less civilly inclined, less individual and less free-thinking that the rest of humanity?

Or is it more common to roll ones eyes at these old chestnuts?

23 zbicyclist April 30, 2013 at 9:40 am

“It is true that in a large and diverse country such as the United States there were probably more apple varieties grown in significant numbers in the 19th century but that confuses geographic diversity with what we actually care about which is consumption diversity or option availability”

There is an intrinsic value to genetic diversity as well, which even Alex seems to admit may have declined since the 19th century.

24 Cliff April 30, 2013 at 10:36 am

He admits no such thing

25 Urso April 30, 2013 at 10:42 am

But neither does he dispute it, even as an aside, which is pretty telling.

26 sort_of_knowledgable April 30, 2013 at 11:13 am

Alex probably doesn’t care, but in fact according to the genetics paper john personna linked above genetic diversity in apples haven’t lost genetic diversity.

27 prior_approval April 30, 2013 at 11:14 am

‘Alex probably doesn’t care’

Well, the co-author of this site has already said facts are not a concern here.

28 Cliff May 1, 2013 at 12:24 am

Show me the link

29 Jeremy Cherfas May 7, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Except that it ISN’T a genetics paper. If only it were, we wouldn’t have to worry about economists talking about genetic variance as if that were something you could meaningfully measure.

30 Cliff May 1, 2013 at 12:25 am

Why dispute a claim that no one has made and that you do not have specific information about? You’re reaching

31 Stefan April 30, 2013 at 9:54 am

“Isn’t it interesting how critics of markets always find something to complain about? Either the market is overloading us with choices or tyrannizing us with too few choices.”

No, this isn’t interesting at all. Criticism meant constructively: Alex’s writing would be stronger if he resisted this sort of cleverness. It is, of course, entirely possible for markets to simultaneously overload us with choice in some cases and provide too few choices in other cases. It’s also possible for these things to be true, and for markets to still be preferable to any other method of resource allocation. Alternatively, perhaps these minor market failings can be ameliorated with simple correctives — markets are, after all, human institutions governed by human-designed rules. Yet another alternative is that such critiques are meant simply to provide insight to private actors so that they can increase the utility they derive from markets.

All of these things can be true, but instead we get these fake gotchas — ha ha! two different people said two different things about markets that superficially seem to be in contradiction! I tend to doubt Alex would want to defend his implied assertion that no possible criticism can be levied at markets.

I know this comment is overly long, but I think it’s a shame to see an otherwise interesting post made worse by a tedious and irrelevant jerk of the knee.

32 charlie April 30, 2013 at 10:13 am

Alex needs to stop being Tyler; Tyler is far more clever and can get away with these things.

33 Urso April 30, 2013 at 10:41 am

Good comment. I am very leery of these “whatever is, is best” explanations.

34 Rahul April 30, 2013 at 2:01 pm


Good comment.

35 Michael May 6, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Regarding the apples, there may indeed be more varieties commercially available now. Some of that may be entirely because of the “apple hunters” that are implicitly belittled in this post. We’re comparing year 1905 to 2000. What were the numbers in 1960? 1970? What percent were commercially extinct 40 years ago (but not biologically) that have resurfaced because of the efforts to find and save old varieties?

I bring this point up because the implicit message of the Mother Jones piece is “big business ruined apple variety availability” and the implicit point of the post is, “No, big business actually increased commercial availability,” whereas I suspect (without evidence) that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I would not be surprised if “big business” did cause many local varieties to be displaced by a few main varieties, but the old varieties were saved by individuals, which have since been embraced enough to once again become commercially available. Patents may be a part of that story.

Point being, these black & white, this side v. that side, mentality probably mischaracterizes the nature of the interaction between “big business” and the passions of a few. They’re likely interconnected. Big agriculture probably wouldn’t find new varieties without small time “apple hunters” and small time apple hunters would never see their varieties become widely available without big business. Disparaging one group over the other seems misguided.

36 Brian Donohue April 30, 2013 at 9:55 am

slow clap.

37 prior_approval April 30, 2013 at 10:14 am

‘That is, with trade production will concentrate in say A,B,X,Y so each consumer has increased choice even as world variety declines.’

Unless that consumer wishes to choose C or Z (weighted to the native country, one would expect) – but it is for the greater good of those providing A,B,X,Y. Besides, those who prefer what isn’t offered don’t get a choice anyways.

38 Cliff April 30, 2013 at 10:39 am

I quite like your poetry and would like to force you to write poetry all day long instead of doing whatever else it is you do. Or don’t I get a choice?

39 prior_approval April 30, 2013 at 10:57 am

I don’t do poetry (and truly, this is the wrong place to be looking for poetry, much less beauty). But to stay in this example, if I grew up in trade country 1 and prefer apple variety C, after variety has increased to exclude my preference, my preference plays no role in the putative increase of choice.

In other words, those who can’t choose what they want simply have to content themselves with an increase in what they don’t want.

40 Millian April 30, 2013 at 11:33 am

Wrong. Some fans of unpopular C may lose out, but others benefit much more, by getting X and Y that they couldn’t before, or cheaper A and B.

41 prior_approval April 30, 2013 at 11:58 am

‘Wrong. Some fans of unpopular C may lose out, but others benefit much more’

But if I care about C, I lost out. Which is part of the point, isn’t it? If we simply ignore those who no longer actually able to find their choice, then variety has increased.

But for those who actually enjoyed C, with absolutely no interest in other varieties, variety has not increased to them, it has decreased.

This is the trick – to simply dismiss those who find their variety decreased to 0, compared to those who may not care all that much about any of the remaining choices.

In other words, those who care about C are simply irrelevant compared to those who don’t care about C.

In other words, the greater good outweighs the individual preference of those who care about their choice, and not that of others.

This isn’t really hard – you just need to learn to ignore the preferences of those for whom choice has decreased to convince yourself choice has increased.

For the greater good, of course.

42 BT April 30, 2013 at 11:40 am

Jesus, you are insufferable. Having worked at a university at one point doesn’t make you any less of a troll.

43 prior_approval April 30, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Hey, I didn’t work at just a university, I worked at GMU over three decades – the finest academic institution that money can buy (call that a bit of old style GMU PR department humor).

44 Rahul April 30, 2013 at 1:06 pm

I wonder how far he is from the threshold of getting banned. Reminds me of CBB in his heyday…..

45 Cliff May 1, 2013 at 12:30 am

Sure, but what is your point? It just seems like you try to be a contrarian for every single post. Yes, when the types of varieties change, some people may be worse off. So what? Unless there is a reason to believe the people who lost out had a much greater intensity of preference, that should not change the net overall welfare. And if you object to using welfare as a basis for evaluating whether changes are good or bad, what is the alternative that you use?

Are you saying that any change that makes some people worse off is bad? In other words, you want complete stasis?

46 Shane M April 30, 2013 at 10:31 pm

I can’t find the thin sliced pickles at the store anymore. Everything on the shelf has migrated to fat slices.

47 Shane M April 30, 2013 at 10:39 pm

…and I meant to add that I don’t think it has anything to do with consumer demand, but everything to do with supply and packaging to encourage more consumption without consumers noticing. Nudge.Nudge. Maybe something similar going on with apples?

48 Hazel Meade April 30, 2013 at 10:33 am

Cataloguing varieties and species continues to be one of the silliest activities in the entire field of biology, considering the definition of what counts as a distinct “species” or “variety” is inherently slippery. You have a big gene pool that contains many degrees of variation, and within that pool, there is a near infinite number of potential combinaions of traits – if traits can even be defined discretely – which are constantly evolving either due to natural selection or human breeding. And then we have this silly activity of finding groupings of traits and putting a label on them, largely with completely arbitrary boundaries, and mostly for the aggrandizement of the person who “discovered” this arbitrarily defined arrangement of genes. And thing we think we’ve lost something if that particular gene combination ceases to be commonly found. The whole exercise is absurd.

49 wrparks April 30, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Variety = marketing and little more. Cataloging them is, I agree, quite useless as it tells little of the genetic diversity of the species.

It is not part of the field of biology. It is part of plant breeding and crop commercialization.

50 AFunk April 30, 2013 at 1:36 pm

The combinations of genes in a variety is a really big deal. To be simplistic, it’s the difference between flowers and weeds. We have gotten a lot of benefit from finding better combinations of genes over the years, and I think it’s acceptable to allow naming and plant variety protection rights in order to encourage further pursuit of improved combinations.

I agree with your second point, that we are not poorer if a certain genetic combination disappears.

51 Roy April 30, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Without cataloging how do other researchers learn what exists? I can think of a lot of activities in biology a lot less useful. Though as a biostratigrapher I am biased, because without cataloging my entire field wouldn’t exist.

52 Mike Huben April 30, 2013 at 10:34 am

Alex is highly misleading here as well, as he is not distinguishing between at least six different things:

* varieties of trees grown in the homestead
* varieties of trees recorded in the literature
* varieties of trees kept in research collections
* varieties of trees sold commercially for homes
* varieties of trees sold commercially for commercial orchards
* varieties of fruit sold commercially

And it gets worse, because there are many variants on varieties such as “Red Delicious” which are all sold under the same name.

In addition, we might use different measures for diversity for these different counts, much as we use different measures of diversity when analyzing monopoly or market dominance.

(I knew my major in plant breeding at Cornell, a school noted for its apple breeding program, would come in useful!)

53 Cliff April 30, 2013 at 10:40 am

Maybe you could explain how it is misleading?

54 wrparks April 30, 2013 at 12:12 pm

HA, another plant person on here!

I don’t speak for Mike, but generally speaking diversity is made up of two different statistics that often get lumped together.

Eveness and richness. Evenness deals with the distribution of traits/genotypes/cultivars. Richness deals with the total quantity of traits in a population. So you can have a rich population with tons of genotypes but it could also have very high eveness since 6-12 genotypes make up the bulk of the population. This is what we have with apples I expect.

A half dozen cultivars make up the bulk of the total population due to monoculture and agriculture so the total diversity calculated based on random sampling would be quite low. However, richness, if you know where to look, is abundant.

Though I know little of apple breeding per se, just genetics/breeding in general.

55 Michael Tinkler April 30, 2013 at 10:36 am

As someone who lives in Geneva, NY (see the excerpt from the article), I figure I can buy about as broad a variety of apples from local farm stands as anyone in the world – but my favorite are Macouns!

56 Jason April 30, 2013 at 11:54 am

The real issue for people who care about apple diversity (I’m not one of them) is not how many different varieties of apples are commercially available, but how many different varieties of apples exist at all. Which is better, they might say: a world in which there are 10 apple varieties and all 10 are commercially available, or a world in which there are 1000 apple varieties but only 3 are commercially available? Proponents of greater variety care less about whether or not they have options at the store, and more about whether or not apples in general have sufficient diversity to survive a range of worst case scenarios.

57 Brandon April 30, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Well put.

58 Cliff May 1, 2013 at 12:33 am

Okay, but if so we have established there are now more different varieties that exist at all, right?

59 Jason May 1, 2013 at 1:20 am

I don’t see where we have established that.

60 dearieme April 30, 2013 at 12:03 pm

These people will put together a family tree for you of three varieties of your choice, on the rootstock that you specify. The choice is vast.

61 prior_approval April 30, 2013 at 12:24 pm

I shouldn’t ask, but as a linguistically deprived American, what are ‘Cob Nut cultivars’? – not the cultivars, but ‘cob nuts’ as a category.

And how do conkers fit into the category of ‘cob nuts?’

62 Ray Lopez April 30, 2013 at 1:29 pm

This is a profanity-free family safe site…let’s keep it that way.

63 enoriverbend April 30, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Cobnuts — a variety of hazelnuts, I believe this is largely a British term.

64 dearieme April 30, 2013 at 5:48 pm

“Conkers” are horse chestnuts. I see their choice of apple varieties is: dessert & culinary apples 2007, cider apples 97, ornamental apples 73.

65 Jim April 30, 2013 at 1:39 pm

There’s a difference between commercial diversity and biodiversity. Obviously commercial diversity can increase while biodiversity falls.

It’s hard to see how one could miss this unless one were deliberately trying to be misleading.

66 Cliff May 1, 2013 at 12:35 am

Is there any evidence at all that biodiversity has fallen? Or that the current level of biodiversity is somehow inadequate?

67 retrocar66 April 30, 2013 at 1:45 pm

One thing that doesn’t seem to be touched upon, perhaps because it is difficult for a scientist to measure, is quality and taste.

Red delicious apples are terrible. I have no idea how they continue to be grown and sold — except that they’re cheap, and our markets have become homogeneous. Similar for the enormous, tasteless potatoes that someone mentioned above.

As much as has been made about the “miracle” of modern industrialized agriculture, free trade, globalization, and all the rest of it — why are we not lamenting the fact that our crops are becoming blander and less varied in taste, and poorer in taste quality? Who cares if we can feed everyone on earth with our 200 billion tomatoes, when nearly every one of them is completely devoid of flavor?

It reminds me of Winston Smith in “1984,” when he laments the dull razors, the weak coffee, the greasy gin, the murky grey soup, and all the rest of it, that no one else seems to notice or pay attention to. After all, there is enough for everyone. Isn’t that what matters?

And what is causing this are 1) increasing concentration of ownership on the supply side (in America, 5-6 farming corporations control 80%+ of the food supply) and 2) a consumerist focus that cares about production statistics that can only focus on quantity, shelf-life, and the ability of an apple to survive a 2000-road trip on the back of a truck. Not about true food quality.

68 Urso April 30, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Red Delicious definitely are the worst apples. But isn’t the point that, these days, there are 6 other varieties to choose from, instead of just “red” or “green” like it used to be?

Your point about crops being bred to be traded is fair, but consider the mango. From all I’ve heard, the breed we get in the US is widely considered the least flavorful, but the most hardy. If you went to Brazil or the Phillipines you’d never choose that variety, because there were other, better ones available. But the realistic alternative in the US is not a better varietal of mango, but no mangoes at all.

69 jonm April 30, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Things may have improved but it’s still amazingly hard to buy in the US anything close to as flavorful as good English varieties. Supermarkets are the worst – tray after tray of first-rate appearance and third-rate taste, but farmers’ markets are not much better.

70 sourcreamus April 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm

You ignore cost. Filet mignon is taste better than a Big Mac but is five times as expensive. So people, taking both cost and flavor into account choose Big Macs. If you prefer filet mignon than may be depressing, but for the people who get both lunch and money left over it is preferable,
If people want flavor they can pay for it. If they don’t want flavor they won’t pay for it.

71 retrocar66 April 30, 2013 at 2:49 pm

I dunno about this. Yes cost is an option, but I am willing to pay any price at all for a flavorful tomato — but there aren’t any. The mass-production of food means that quality of “flavor,” which is aesthetic, must decline — because when ownership is concentrated and buyers have no alternative, they will buy what’s available. We have to eat.

It is possible to grow a flavorful tomato, and I assert that if we did not have such concentrated ownership among producers, then there would be more variety to choose from, and they would have to compete with each other on this aesthetic quality as well as the “quality” that capitalism cares about, which is really just quantity and shelf life.

And people do not “choose” Big Macs. They simply cannot afford filet mignon. There’s an important difference here. What is happening is that the all-powerful “market”, which seeks only profits and not other humanist goals like, for instance, healthy eating, or especially aesthetic things like flavor or a “good experience” — in other words, a market which cares about money and not about people, will naturally produce foods with the highest profit margin for the greatest number of people possible. Your analogy sounds to me like saying that someone who lost his job, can’t pay his mortgage, and is evicted from his home is “choosing” to live under a bridge. In a better society that didn’t worship a “market mentality” for even noneconomic concerns, we wouldn’t be talking about people “choosing” Big Macs.

72 Brian Donohue April 30, 2013 at 3:08 pm

“I am willing to pay any price at all for a flavorful tomato.”

I seriously doubt this. The price you are willing to pay, I gather, is more than the cost of anonymous people elsewhere on the planet starving but less than the cost of digging your own garden.

73 Brandon April 30, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Your choices as a consumer are severely constrained by the choices others, on both the demand and supply sides, make.

74 Hillary April 30, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook is an excellent book on tomato history and production, although it convinced me to only buy hydroponic or farmers market tomatoes.

75 enoriverbend April 30, 2013 at 4:52 pm

I would deny your assertion about blander and less variety, at least if you are talking about the last thirty years or less. There was a time when a plain vanilla grocery store might have only Red Delicious plus maybe one other, but that was mostly long ago. I went to the grocery yesterday — not a Whole Foods or anything specialist — and there were at least 12 varieties in stock at that moment, including good-tasting varieties like Pink Lady, Honeycrisp, Fuji, Braeburn, and Granny Smiths. And it’s not even apple season locally.

Besides which, groceries, like other businesses, are largely responding to customer demand. Customers demand a better choice now than they did in the 70’s, for example, so lo and behold, choice improved dramatically in the groceries.

As for tomatoes, well, if you really care about taste, you grow them yourself anyway, if possible.

76 Cliff May 1, 2013 at 1:24 am

Quality did suffer along with the green revolution that allowed so many billions of mouths to be fed. Most crops are far lower in nutritional value today due to their higher yields. However, that trend has recently been reversing. I eat grass-fed and finished free-range bison meat instead of beef. Tastes way better than beef of a similar fat content, costs twice as much, 8% fat and way higher nutrient density. Healthy foods like Quinoa, steel-cut oatmeal, pomegranate, acai and the like are widely available now where the were unknown a few years ago.

77 Brian May 6, 2013 at 6:05 pm

There’s a big difference between complaining about crappy store-bought tomatoes of the past 20-30 years and wholesale indictment of the Green Revolution, which was much more to do with grain production. There’s little to no evidence that the grain cultivars at the core of the Green Revolution were “far lower in nutritional value” than the cultivars they replaced.

Whether the Green Revolution led to detrimental overall changes in the diets of peasants in the developing world is a very different issue.

78 Paul April 30, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Interesting stuff. Can’t speak to the industry as a whole, but in Washington state, which produces around two-thirds of the US crop, the diversity curve looks like an hourglass. In the 1930s, there were around 40 varieties grown in commercial quantities. By the 1960s, consolidation in the industry–orchards and distribution–most of the volume was accounted for by three varieties–red delicious, golden delicious, and a greenish pie apple. the red delicious was by far the dominant apple, largely due to its story-book color and shape (it tapers to five points on the base). But our obsession with appearance was self-defeating. The red delicious is bland even when fresh and doesn’t store well (gets mealy). Also, as breeders selected for redder varieties, the skin became more and more bitter as the levels of chromium (which supplies the red) increased. yellow delicious not much better. by the 1980s, the washington apple industry was living on borrowed time. the savior, paradoxically, was Alar, which growers used to enhance the color of the red delicious (alar keeps the apple on the tree longer, thus allowing the fruit to get redder). when alar was banned, the disruption created a huge opportunity for other varieties–some older ones, like granny smith, but also some new ones, like fujis, brisk sales of which persuaded growers and retailers to add varieties.and the rest is history.

79 GiT April 30, 2013 at 9:14 pm

Interesting. Red delicious really were horrible. Now I don’t think my supermarket even bothers to carry them.

80 Brian May 6, 2013 at 5:57 pm

the key question: have we reached Peak Apple?

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