Unlike other fruit we all have our favorite apple varieties and seek them out judiciously in the produce aisle. Some of us like the tart and slightly racy bite of a green Granny Smith. The more traditional among us seek the sweet comfort of the Golden Delicious or Gala. The adventurous among us have descended on the sophisticated Braeburn and Fuji varieties. The sensual Honeycrisp and Pink Lady varieties have captivated many new converts. Surprisingly we tend to be pretty monogamous when it comes to choosing our apples and usually stick to our favorite varieties. The issue with this fierce dedication to varieties is many of them are from stocks that have huge susceptibility to disease, such as Fire Blight, which makes them increasingly difficult to grow with organic methods.
Fire blight is a disease native to North America and not found in other continents such as Latin America. It has, however, spread to Europe, the Near East and New Zealand through international trade. The bacteria enter the plant through flower blossoms and wounds and can be spread by insects, rain, hail, wind, birds and through cultural practices. Once inside the tree, the bacteria multiply and spread through the plant’s vascular system. If the bacteria move into the rootstock, fire blight can kill the entire tree and the entire orchard. New orchards cost $12-20,000 to establish per acre and it takes five to seven years to bring an organic orchard to maturity. Losing an orchard to this disease is pure economic devastation. The best defense for fire blight is prevention (there is no cure), and the most commonly used tool has been antibiotics.
However, due to great consumer concern over antibiotics use in organic production, April 10th 2013, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) ruled to end the allowance of antibiotics (oxy-tetracycline) in organic apple and pear production in 2014.
Some apple varieties have more susceptibility to the disease than others and, ironically, some of the most popular varieties are the most susceptible. Fire Blight is particularly devastating to our much beloved Gala, Fuji, Pink Lady, Rome Beauty and Braeburn. Red Delicious, Liberty and Northern Spy are the least susceptible of all apple varieties, but the market demand has declined for them over the years. The lovely Ambrosia, Empire, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp and McIntosh have moderate risk of Fire Blight. For more on this topic read David Granatstein’s paper on the role of genetics in Fire Blight.
In Europe, organic growers have adopted a number of resistant varieties for control of apple scab, another major disease. Some of these have increased fire blight resistance. Cornell has produced a fire blight resistant Gala apple with genetic engineering by transferring resistance genes from a wild apple species into a Gala. GE apples are not a remedy for organic production.
The answer is in new varieties and consumer acceptance of them. Introducing fire blight resistant apples will need to occur over a period of many years. First, varieties with good properties for growing, eating and significant disease resistance need to be developed and tested. Then a market needs to be developed; already there are dozens of new varieties competing for shelf space in grocery stores. Apples are one of the few food items sold by variety name in the U.S. Until a consumer market is developed for a new variety, it is not possible to sell significant volume. Developing consumer recognition and acceptance of new varieties will be a multi-year and multi-million dollar process. At present, it is not economically sustainable for organic growers to assume the market risk of planting acreage of a fire blight resistant variety with no consumer acceptance or recognition.
What as consumers can we do to help?
Go out on a limb and try something new. Don’t be afraid to try new varieties as they emerge. Explore new subtle flavors and textures. Buy apples not only by name but by aroma, touch and taste. Try some of the traditional apples such as Liberty and Northern Spy. Always purchase organic apples and reward those growers for staying in organic production. Let your supermarket and suppliers know you are willing to go out on a limb with new organic varieties. Tell me what you think!