Apples To Apples, Dust To Dust

Rowan Jacobsen raises concern about lost apple varieties:

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.

Alex Tabarrok pushes back:

The innovative Paul Heald and co-author Sussanah Chapman (pdf) 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!

(Photo by Jeff Kubina)