‘A’ is for Apple, and also for Alar

A Brief History of Chemical Pesticide and Fertilizer use in American Orchards.

For most of the nineteenth century, almost every midwestern farm contained an apple orchard.  Growing apples, peaches, and other tree fruit was just one part of the diversified, self-provisioning family farm.  As the apple tree was not native to the American midwest, in the early years after introduction they thrived with little care, as few of the apple’s natural enemies were present in this new environment.  But the proliferation of orchards also created environments for pests to thrive.  By the mid-nineteenth century, agricultural journals were filled with advice about organic methods for managing these pests.  The first chemicals applied to apple orchards to fight pests arrived from France about 1880.  French horticulturists had found some success controlling the coddling moth by spraying their trees with ferrous sulfate, also known as Paris Green.  Soon, some American orchardists were regularly applying Paris Green, and another French import, hydrated copper sulfate, commonly called Bordeaux Mixture, to treat apple scab.

The chemical approach to cultivating apples found an ally in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, established by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.  The 1887 Hatch Act created agricultural experiment stations in every state, and controlling pests and diseases which were damaging crops was at the top of their agenda.  As the USDA developed new chemical solutions to old problems, and promoted them among orchardists, the nature of the American Orchard began to change.  Families who had long used the products of their orchards for home consumption, and marketed surpluses locally for modest profits, saw their profit margins disappear in the face of increased chemical input costs.  By the end of the 19th century, the percentage of family farms with orchards began a slow, steady decline, and production of apples became increasingly dominated by specialized “growers,” who made the increased costs of using chemicals work for them by specializing in fruit production and getting larger.

In this 1959 advertisement in Newsweek, Shell Chemical promoted its ammonia-based fertilizers by suggesting Johnny Appleseed would approve of their use.

In the twentieth century, the gospel of chemical solution spread across the nation, and those farmers who did not jump on the chemical bandwagon were dismissed as backwards, lazy, and lacking in ambition.  By mid-century, the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in American orchards was widespread, and the American chemical industry was busy developing new and costly chemical solutions to every grower’s problems.  As growers produced increasingly for national markets, they also began to reduce the apple diversity in their orchards, concentrating on producing just a few varieties, in the belief that the American apple consumer sought predictability and uniformity of appearance above all else.  By 1980, almost half of all apples found in American grocery stores were of the Red Delicious variety, with its cousin the Golden Delicious a close runner-up.

An increasing obsession with appearance encouraged growers to find new ways to make their apples a perfect uniform deep red, and the chemical industry responded to this by offering up chemical growth retardants like Alar, to prevent Red Delicious and McIntosh apples from dropping off the trees before they have achieve the desired full red blush.  Tests on Alar had revealed that at very high doses it was a known carcinogen, but the Environmental Protection Agency had not banned it, believing it presented a very low risk to consumers. But Alar attracted the attention of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which lobbied for its ban, claiming that the risk posed was far greater than the industry believed, especially for children, and also that it was a completely unnecessary chemical, used for purely cosmetic purposes.

The story exploded when the investigative news show, 60 Minutes, ran a story on Alar in February 1989, introduced with an illustration of a skull and crossbones super-imposed on an apple.  One unsourced urban legend which has been repeated ever since was the story of a mother who called 911 to have the police stop her child’s school bus so that she could remove the deadly apple from her child’s lunch box.  The market for apples temporarily crashed, and growers took heavy losses on their crops. The industry sued both the NRDC and 60 Minutes, but did not prevail in the courts.  The chemical company Uniroyal, the maker of Alar, withdrew the product from the American market.

For both Big Agriculture and the Organic Food movement, “the Alar scare,” as it came to be remembered, was a watershed moment.  But each took a different lesson from it.  Perceiving itself to be a victim of an orchestrated and unjustified campaign against one of its products, Big Agriculture began to lobby for food defamation laws in many states, making it easier for agricultural interests to sue the media and environmental activists for inciting scares that cost farmers money. Environmentalists, on the other had, were able to use the Alar story to highlight the casual and unnecessary use of known carcinogens in American agriculture, and were able to press Congress to enact more stringent laws on chemical use in agriculture.

In recent years, demand for organic produce has increased dramatically in the United States, and small-scale producers who are totally organic or minimizing their uses of chemicals are making a comeback.  In 2012 the Environmental Working Group put the non-organic apple at the top of its “Dirty Dozen” list of produce that contains the most chemical traces, making the organic apple among the best choices for health-minded consumers. For more of the story of the apple in America, read Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard by William Kerrigan.