There is no better time to find fresh Washington fruit than this time of year, be it cherries, peaches, nectarines, blueberries, strawberries, pears, apples, plums… you name it. This abundance, and its quality, is a result of large investments in research and innovation over the years. But does greater quantity and quality mean improved sustainability? Let’s take a look at apples as an example of changes in sustainability.
We have shifted to new varieties that many consumers prefer over the formerly common ‘Red Delicious’ (sales dropped by 50% from 1993 to 2003; not sustainable demand), generally boosting the value of the fruit. New orchards are high-density and pedestrian style, bringing trees into production earlier (a positive economic impact), producing better quality fruit, reducing the need for ladders (and thus worker injuries), and improving the performance of pest management operations (an environmental benefit).
The development of pheromone mating disruption to control codling moth (the worm in the apple) has transformed pest management and has allowed growers to phase out targeted higher-risk pesticides without increasing crop loss. This tool, along with other benign (e.g. codling moth granulosis virus) or low risk materials, and better management guidance from the Decision Aid System (a free comprehensive on-line resource that integrates weather data, pest and disease models, and more) has led to a dramatic reduction in pesticide residue risk. Chuck Benbrook has calculated a reduction in dietary risk for apples from 3.5 before the Food Quality Protection Act (1996 baseline) to 0.21 in 2010, a 94% reduction (presented at the Second International Organic Fruit Research Symposium, June 2012; publication forthcoming).
Orchardists are using microsprinklers, drip irrigation, mulches, soil moisture monitoring, and deficit irrigation to cut water use by 50-70% over their older methods. About 9% of the apple and pear acres are under certified organic management.
On-going research is leading to trees (both rootstock and scions) with resistance to various pests and diseases such as fire blight, apple replant disease, and woolly apple aphid, all of which will reduce pesticide needs in the future. And biocontrol research will enable growers to more actively manage beneficial insects through their management choices, releases of beneficials, and habitat plantings.
Energy and labor remain as two significant sustainability challenges for the future. Electric farm vehicles are being explored. Maybe we can make biofuel from the cull apples as well. The new orchard systems have real potential to increase mechanization, including mechanical harvest. This year a prototype harvester will be tested again – people still pick the fruit by hand but they no longer have ladders or picking bags, improving their efficiency and reducing their potential injury. Even this is being researched for the ergonomic implication (social sustainability), since more repetitive motions with the hands could be a problem. Lack of labor is a huge sustainability risk for the fruit sector.
A changing climate could challenge fruit producers in terms of frost, excess heat (which causes sunburn on fruit), more severe storms, and lower summer water supplies. Various systems of ”protected culture” (i.e. using different mesh materials over the orchard) are being explored. While very costly and resource intensive, these approaches could reduce losses from hail, for example, that this year damaged a lot of fruit in the state.
There have been some sustainability trade-offs in apple production, such as greater susceptibility to fire blight for some new varieties and rootstocks. But when I look at the evidence, I am impressed with the sustainability progress on many fronts. And I expect that this process of continual improvement will continue!