Recently my friend John who is a fellow fruit enthusiast like myself and helps run the NASE with me, sent me an email with a link to a program entitled The Fruit Hunters. Documenting the history of fruit and the industrialization of the food chain, The Fruit Hunters takes us on a journey through history and around the globe. From the jungles of Borneo and Bali, to a banana breeder in Honduras, and the flat northern plains of Saskatchewan, people around the globe have made it their mission to preserve, propagate, and share exotic, rare, and often times threatened species of fruit.
Whether it is the Wani white mango, the quest to breed a more genetically diverse and resilient banana, or introducing the sweetly tart haskap berry to the culinary world, humans love affair with fruit is older than written history. Since the days when we climbed down out of the trees, our symbiotic evolution with fruit has been many things – a culinary desire, a poetic muse, and a forbidden love. Fruit has adorned the artwork in the halls of kings, and been the foundation in ceremonies for tribal people. It is the favorite summertime snack of a smiling, messey 6 year old, and a common culinary ingredient in so much cooking from around the world. Fruit is a global desire – something we can never get enough of when it is in season, and something we long for in the cold, dark days of winter.
Those of us who are a part of the modern homesteading movement are carrying on traditions that were a part of everyday life only two generations ago. We grow food, we preserve it, and we pass on all that accumulated genetic wealth and history to the next generation. But modern, industrial agriculture has done such a good job of separating people from the land and these homesteading traditions, that most people do not think twice about where their food comes from anymore. It only makes sense that apples, oranges, and bananas come from the grocery store, right?
This has been made possible by creating a “Global Summertime” that is powered by massive inputs of energy dense fossil fuels. The global supply chain of fruit production, from the field to the shelf, has very little room for genetic diversity and unique traits amongst all that is grown. If you were a piece of fruit – a strawberry, an apple, a lime – and you were to be shipped halfway around the world in February, there are only a few things that the global fruit supply chain cares about.
The first is ripening time. If you and all your brother and sister fruits do not ripen at the same time, whether that is on or off of the vine, shrub, or tree, you would never be considered for the circumnavigation of the globe. Second, if you are too difficult to harvest efficiently, sorry, maybe next time. And third, if you do not have thick skin and a body that cannot be roughed up a bit and look better for the wear over a journey of a few thousand miles, than that will not work either.
Notice how flavor and aroma are not on that list. Neither is the fruit inspired passion and ecstasy that comes from a just picked raspberry, or the first bite of an intensely flavored Rubinette apple, or a tree ripened plum. Global fruit does not care about human passion and desire, and it definitely does not care about genetic diversity amongst the plants that we grow for our food. Every banana you find at the supermarket is the same Cavendish banana that is being grown worldwide on every banana plantation. Highly prone to disease, the fate of the global monoculture of the banana rests uneasily on a regiment of fungicides, insecticides, slave-like labor and a hope that a global pandemic like the one in the late 1960’s can be avoided today.
Another example of intolerance towards genetic diversity within the global food production system is the apple. Quite possibly the most well known fruit in North America, Europe, and other temperate regions throughout the world, the apple has a long history that began in the mountains of Kazakhstan and has spread the world over. Ranging in color from greens, reds, yellows, and infinite combinations of the three, and with flavors as diverse as banana, pineapple, cinnamon, anise, honey, sweet, tart, and acidic; apples have been a historic treasure trove of genetic variation and unique characteristics.
Even their names are evidence to the genetic wealth contained in the species Malus Domesticus – Brown Snout, Etter’s Gold, Black Oxford, Redfree, Hudson’s Golden Gem, King of Tompkin’s County, Smoke House, Sweet Bough, and Chestnut Crab all come to mind. Apples have taken their names from their physical appearance, flavor, place of origin, and the person who found or bred that particular apple. They have become local legends and have had festivals dedicated in their honor, and until recently, almost every region of America (and elsewhere in the world) have had their hometown heros.
Worldwide there are about 7,500 varieties of apples grown today. In America there are about 2,500 varieties that are grown throughout backyards and home orchards, and about 100 of those are commonly found in small, commercial operations. Out of all of those apples to choose from, only about 15 varieties of them are grown on an industrial scale to supply the world’s taste demand for this wonderful pomme fruit.
Just like so many other varieties of plants that have been molested to fit the industrial model of agriculture, apples have been stripped of their unique identities. Apples were made famous because of their great cider making traits, or their superb storing ability using traditional methods. Some were used for drying or baking or making sauce, but all of them were valued for their own unique reasons. Now an apple just needs to be sweet, without that much real flavor, and have the stamina to withstand the rigors of travelling the globe. It is a truly sad story to witness the destruction of a vast gene pool like the apple to the hands of convenience.
While industrial agriculture is stripping the world of genetic diversity, there is a movement of individuals and groups throughout the world who are fighting back to protect it. Backyard and hobby orchardists, nurserymen, and globe trotting scientist and fruit hunters are on the front lines trying to preserve, protect, and spread all of these threatened genetics. University arboretums, private collections, and orchards are all home to historic and endangered species of fruit. And there are also networks that have formed to help spread these genetics. In America there is the North American Scion Exchange (new website coming for the 2014 season!) and the Seed Savers Exchange, and in Europe there is Fruitiers.net. There are real life scion exchanges at farming conferences and get togethers , and online trading through gardening and sustainability forums.
There is only so much that we as individuals can do, but the more of us who are actively participating in growing fruit, propagating genetics, and sharing what we have with the world can make a huge impact on preserving this rich history that belongs to all of humanity. The further we progress down the road of industrial civilization and the agriculture that makes it possible, the more genetic wealth we will lose forever.
Every lost fruit whether it is an apple or a mango or a grape, not only represents millennia of evolutionary adaptation thrown to the wayside, but also a loss of human connection with the Earth. Genetic diversity within our food systems not only ensures security against disease, drought, famine, and other challenges we face as an agricultural society, it also roots us in traditions that are entwined with the food we grow and that in turn nourishes our bodies.
Fruit is not just a food for the body, but also of the soul – the place where passion and poetry are born. Eating fruit that you helped to grow or forage from the wild can be a sensual experience, and is one of the things that make us human. Being inspired and moved by the sweetness of the flesh, the curvy shapes, and soft textures of fruit, we can connect with a part of our nature that has also been lost with the industrialization of food and the world.
So while we all can’t travel the globe searching for endangered fruits, we can all help preserve fruit genetics by growing fruit locally. If you are a property owner try to plant as wide of a selection of fruit as possible. Plant old varieties and new ones, things that are proven winners for your climate, and try pushing gardening zones if your heart (and taste buds) desires something more exotic. Do not only grow these fruits, but help to spread their genes through scion exchanges and other plant swaps. Learn propagation techniques like grafting, rooting and air layering. If you do not have access to land to do this yourself, volunteer to help out those who do, or start planting your own Guerilla Forest Garden!
Whatever role you can play in the preservation, propagation, and sharing of fruit genetics, it will be a net benefit to human culture and for the biodiversity of the planets edible plant population. With climate change and the the ongoing destruction and pollution of traditional agricultural and wild lands, any and all help is needed to help protect these species of fruit – even the ones that seem to need no protection at all today. It will be a sad day indeed when an apple like the Honey Crisp or the Concord grape are no longer available because we could not take care of our planet! Peace & Cheers
Part 1 of The Fruit Hunters