Apples have rarely been cheaper.
But what is the true cost of cheap?
Not so long ago all our apples came from orchards.
There were no or little chemicals used.
Now apples are one of the most intensive users of chemicals.
There are over 2000 types of apples to choose from, with names like Poor Man's Profit and Marriage Maker, yet, in my local supermarket today I can choose from 5 types of apple.
The orchards were a great source of wildlife. Now the huge scale of single crop production supports very little.
Our apples are now stored anywhere from 3-12 months before we get to eat them.
The growers choose apples that are the heaviest croppers rather the ones with the highest vitamin counts. Quantity is preferred to quality.
The supermarkets choose apples that store well and look good over ones with the best flavour. Even to conform to EC grading criteria apple growers have to match many criteria, but there are no criteria for flavour.
We used grow all our own apples. Now 2/3 are imported.
In order to preserve apples during storage and transport they are treated with post-harvest chemicals.
These are intended to stay on the fruit. These do not have to be labeled. Waxed apples do not have to be labeled either. Most are.
The supermarkets don't have to answer to the land. To the rivers. To the farmers. To the environment. To the local community. They answer to their shareholders.
Our food chain is for the most part in their hands. And their business is all about profit maximisation.
We have to accept that. Or change it.
Which brings us back to the original question: can we afford cheap?
Go organic, go local,
or even better - go local organic.
Below is an email we received in response to this piece from an apple grower from Kent called James Smith. He highlights what we can all do to support British fruit growers. Thanks James.
After reading the piece about, 'How much does cheap cost' I thought I would drop you a quick mail to give you a bit of information from an apple grower in Kent, namely Me!
As well as growing apples and pears on 3 medium size farms I am also a keen mountain biker, kayaker, triathlete and Howies customer. I am lucky enough to live and work in a truly beautiful place, our farms are in the Garden of England and the fruit we grow is fantastic.
When I saw the title I thought excellent, my thoughts exactly. but as I read the article my heart fell a little. So many of the points made are correct. I face the sad situation where I may have to stop growing apples because I cannot afford to supply the main supermarkets. Not only are they devaluing food in general they are making life so difficult for those of us who strive to provide a quality (in all aspects) product.
I will try and put this together in a coherent way as it is too easy to ramble on this subject which is so dear to my heart.
Supermarkets devalue food and are not loyal to anyone but themselves and their shareholders.
Food is not cheap and should be priced realistically.
All apples still come from orchards, the shape and size of the trees has changed to increase production.
Chemicals have always been used. Growers used to use chemicals such as Bordeaux mixture, lead arsenate and tar oils to control pest and disease.
Most modern products are specific in their action so help maintain biodiversity in the orchards.
Commercial organics use a lot of chemicals such as copper and sulphur to control pest and disease, they are not chemical free.
Orchards can be as friendly to wildlife as ever before, we have had bird surveys carried out to show more that 40 species of birds on our farms including rarer species such as tree sparrows.
You are lucky to have 5 varieties to choose from.
Apples are stored anything from 0 days to 12 months.
Growers can only grow varieties that they have a chance of selling. The supermarkets determine what should be grown.
There are few alternative markets for growers to sell any volume of fruit as the supermarkets control a huge percentage of all food sales.
Supermarket specifications demand certain sugar levels to ensure good flavour for each variety.
Two thirds of all apples are imported. In five years time it will be nearer 90% unless things change.
Not all apples are treated with post harvest chemicals. Imported fruit is more likely to be waxed and polished that's why they shine on the shelves and customers buy them instead of not so pretty English Coxes.
Food labeling in general is very inaccurate. There is no requirement for any food to be labeled with pesticide application info, does an organic label tell you what has been applied to it?
Supermarkets all insist on certain standards of production to ensure that water courses and the environment are safeguarded against pollution. These protocols are supposed to be enforced globally.
Most farmers do more than required to ensure that the environment is looked after.
On our farms we conserve habitats for as much wild life as we can, we put up nesting boxes for owls, Kestrels and small birds.
We select crop protection products based on their suitability for the job and only spray if necessary.
In the summer the noise of birdsong wakes me up at 4.30am and is all you will hear through the day.
Supermarkets are killing my business. So in the future all food will come from agribusiness where food is produced on massive and industrial scale.
The UK produces thousands of tons of apples, if we don't store some of them so they all get sold to our customers then what should we do? Grow 5% of the crop and only sell them when they come off the tree? What fruit do you eat for the rest of the year?
If you don't want stored UK fruit then you better be happy to burn a few tons of diesel to get them up here from the southern hemisphere on a huge smoking container ship.
The challenge for me as a smaller grower (I still farm 200 acres of fruit), is to find ways of supplying locally to people who appreciate the beautiful fruit I grow. We sell at the local farmers market and people travel miles to buy our fruit. The problem that we face is that we grow over 1000 tons of fruit and need to sell it to millions of people in the South East of England. At this time there is only one way of doing that and it is currently unsustainable.
I would urge people to shop locally, I am in the process of setting up a website where people can see what we do and purchase fruit that can be delivered locally or collected. You will be lucky to find fruit in the supermarket that tastes as good as it does from my farm, even if it has been in store for 3 months or so. That is because fruit has a hard journey to the supermarket shelf where is mauled by shelf stackers and fussy customers.
To give you an idea of how hard it can be for us here is an example of what happens all too often.
A grower spends 12 months of the year growing a beautiful crop that he/she then picks to the highest standard, with over 90% of the fruit perfect in appearance. They then send it away to be stored for a while until the supermarket calls for it. When they do it goes to a pack house where it is graded for colour and size and packaged to go to the supermarket shelf. After everyone has taken their few pence a kilo, for transport, packaging, grading, marketing commissions, promotions ('buy one get one free' sound familiar?). The farmer could get a bill for selling his/her fruit. How then do they pay for the 12 months work and the harvest? The answer is, they borrow until they can't anymore then have to sell everything. That is the cost of cheap.
If food sells for a realistic price then all farmers can invest in their businesses and ensure that birds continue to sing. At this rate there won't be any fruit growers left in the UK. You can then choose between tasteless Red Delicious from the USA and French Gala.
I stand by my business and can say that the growers are not at fault. We are trying to ensure that our operations are as environmentally neutral as possible. Organic products are more expensive because the yields are far lower, not necessarily because they are more friendly to the environment. An organic grower needs to spray more often (more diesel) and can only use a few simple chemicals (copper is not good for the soil or for earthworms) so commercial organics are not the answer in my view. As we strive to do things in the best possible way our income is taken away from us in the drive to make food cheaper still. We need customers to demand English fruit and to be happy to pay for it. If they don't then they will have to be happy to buy from overseas where people may be less worried about the environment. At the moment the average supermarket customer will pick up cheaper imported apples over English everyday of the week because they believe that food should not cost them anything. It used to be that food took up 30% of the average households income each week. I should think that it is nearer 5 or 10% now.
I hope this has not bored any of you too much. But apples are my life and I want to keep growing them so I can keep living here, ride my bike and walk my dog through the orchards.
Your catalogue is ace but I felt a bit demonized by this article.
I will stop there.