Wednesday November 26, 2003
Society section, pp. 12-13.
The failure of supermarkets to exploit the distinctiveness of British apples is leading to a farming crisis, say campaigners. Martin Hodgson reports
It has has been a bumper year for British apples. This year's long hot summer brought the best crop for many years, both in size and quality, but apple growers warn that the industry is in the middle of a crisis that threatens to bring it to its knees.
The British apple market is dominated by cheap imports, and the past three decades have seen a steady decline in the number of growers and orchards. The figures are stark: according to the trade group British Apples and Pears, there were some 1,500 registered growers in 1987; today, there are just 500.
Commercial apple trees are usually replaced every 10 or 15 years, but the current low profits mean farmers are unable to re-invest. In areas such as Kent, Somerset, Devon, Hereford and Worcestershire, which for centuries have been defined by their orchards, many farmers face the grim choice of selling off their land, or grubbing up their orchards and turning to other kinds of farming.
"The UK produces very good quality apples, but we desperately need to support our horticulture industry," says Dan Keech, campaigner on orchards at the environmental group Sustain. "If we continue losing farming at the rate we are, we're going to have to find other ways to use the land. It's a ridiculous waste of skills, resources and local distinctiveness."
Last week, Friends of the Earth (FoE) laid the blame for the crisis on Britain's convenience stores and supermarkets, which sell 80% of the country's apples. According to an FoE survey, only 38% of the apples sold in Tesco and Asda, the country's biggest chains, were British, while convenience stores scored lower, with 27%.
"The supermarkets are only paying lip service to supporting British growers," claims Sandra Bell, of FoE's Real Food campaign. "It's plain from our survey that the majority of the apples on the shelves are imported. That doesn't match up with the PR about supporting British growers."
Both supermarket chains deny the charges and point to their aggressive promotion of British apples, complete with Union Jack crates. But clearly there is a problem: Britain now imports more than 70% of the apples it consumes, with some brought from as far away Chile and China.
Apple production overseas has tended to prioritise bulk over quality, and supermarket-led economies of scale have encouraged the British apple industry to follow suit, rather than playing to its strengths, which are diversity and flavour. More than 2,000 varieties of apple exist in Britain, but only some 30 are grown commercially.
"Buyers want lorry-loads of the same product, the same size, same price, week in, week out, which, with our traditional English varieties, is very difficult to do, unless we have a long-term commitment from them and could have a major replanting programme," says John Breach, chairman of the British Independent Fruit Growers Association.
Farmers say this obsession with perfection obliges them to apply more chemical treatments, and leaves them vulnerable to changes in buying fashions. "You're told they're too red, or too green, or too big or too small," says David Knight, a Kent farmer who supplies Asda, Sainsbury and Somerfield. "But it's not like a baked bean factory - things change every year."
With a buyers' market dominated by a few supermarket chains, producers have no choice but to play along, or face losing their only customers.
"We need more long-term commitment from supermarkets and government if we're going to see a fruit industry continue in this country," Breach says. "You can't change an orchard overnight. It takes years, and you can't do that every time your client changes his mind."
The supermarkets say they are working closely with British apple growers, but that their primary role is to meet customer demand. "The only reason these specifications exist is because we know that's what customers require," says John Church, a spokesman for Tesco. "It's pointless to put into a store an apple that is too small, too big or too brown, because it just won't sell."
But Sue Clifford, director of environmental group Common Ground, says: "Every apple tells a story, and it's a story about a place and its people." Taking the apple as a symbol of local distinctiveness, the group has com piled an encyclopaedic collection of local recipes, traditions and customs related to orchards, as part of its campaign to re-awaken British people to their links with the countryside.
"The knowledge that surrounds apples and orchards is part of the culture of a place," Clifford says. "If we throw it away because of cheap imports, then we are eroding the sheer richness of our culture."
In 1990, Common Ground launched Apple Day, an annual celebration of apple lore, which has led to the rediscovery of several varieties that has helped the establishment of some 200 community orchards around the country, run by schools, local authorities and parish councils.
As well as providing a link with the past, these traditional orchards provide an important habitat for wildlife. Trees in traditional orchards can grow 50 feet high, and surveys have found twice as much bird life than in commercial orchards - including rarer species such as great spotted woodpecker, tree sparrows and little owls.
The countryside stewardship scheme, managed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and by the Rural Development Service, has contributed to the maintenance of some traditional orchards, but others are supported by a growth in "boutique" apple farming.
"There is a resurgence of interest in traditional craft ciders and perries," says James Marsden, a Herefordshire orchard owner and cider-maker, and head of policy at English Nature. "Small producers are sourcing apples from traditional orchards because these contain old-fashioned varieties of fruit. They aren't available in large quantities, so they're not attractive to the commercial makers, but they are highly valued and make a distinctive product. People are thrilled when they visit and I can show them the four trees that produced the cider they are drinking."
Craft ciders and rare apples are sold mostly in food and wine fairs or farmers' markets, but the market is growing. Marsden says: "We can produce a very high quality product and maintain a very beautiful and wildlife-rich landscape that is making a small contribution to the local economy."
The production of craft cider may be one way of maintaining traditional orchards, but it is not a practical solution for larger-scale British apple farmers. Some observers warn that the commercial trade will continue to decline, and English apples will only survive as a niche luxury product. If consumers continue to choose cheaper imported fruit, they may see the end of the English orchard.
"The apple you eat is the landscape you get," Clifford says. "If you care about the land around you and the culture attached to it, then you'll be prepared to pay a little bit more for it."