Monday, January 25, 1999 Published at 00:12 GMT
Orchards go pear-shaped
The alliance says consumer choice is shrinking
By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby
A group campaigning for more environmentally-friendly food production says most of Britain's apples and pears are grown using harmful intensive methods or are imported.
The group is the SAFE (Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Environment) Alliance, a coalition of 32 organisations working for sustainable food and farming in the United Kingdom and abroad.
With the support of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Safe has produced two reports, The pear essentials and How green are our apples?
It lists some of the varieties which used to be available in different parts of Britain, but which are now scarce or non-existent.
Apple varieties included Marriage Maker, Poor Man's Profit, and the Norfolk Beefing apple, which was "baked in bread ovens after the bread had been removed, and an iron plate placed on top to press the air out".
Pears that have disappeared include the Vicar of Winkfield (with flesh "pale yellow, rather firm, dry and woolly"), the Swan's Egg, and Hacon's Incomparable.
The reports say virtually half of Britain's pear orchards and nearly two-thirds of its apple orchards have been destroyed since 1970.
This means a loss of biodiversity, as orchards - especially traditional ones - are wildlife havens for species as diverse as bats, hares, badgers, owls and woodpeckers, as well as many plants.
The choice for consumers is shrinking, too. With 2,300 known varieties of apple, just two - the Cox and the Bramley - now dominate UK orchards. Of 550 different sorts of pear, three varieties are generally available.
Safe is concerned that "factory farming" of fruit means not only very restricted choice, but also much greater use of chemicals.
It says the average pear is sprayed more than 13 times, and apples 16 times, often with a mixture of chemicals.
A 1997 government survey found evidence of 32 different agrochemicals leaving detectable traces in apples.
That year the Pesticides Safety Directorate said the risk of eating an apple with residue levels that might cause adverse health effects was one in a thousand.
Twenty-three different pesticides have been found in pears, including the growth regulator chloremquat, which is licensed in Britain only for use on cereal crops.
The government's advice is that "consumers should wash fruit before eating it, and peeling fruit is a sensible additional precaution when preparing it for small children".
The reports also express concern about chemicals and waxes used on fruit after it has been picked to extend its shelf life.
More than two-thirds of the apples sold in Britain are imported and four-fifths of the pears.
Safe campaigns against long-distance transport of food, which it says is often unnecessary and always environmentally damaging, because of the contribution to global warming of the transport involved.
It says long-distance transport, whether from abroad or within Britain, also breaks the link between consumer and producer.
This means that, unless they buy a clearly-labelled "fair trade" product, shoppers have little assurance that the people producing their food have decent working conditions.
The reports note that the World Health Organisation found up to 30% of Latin American farmworkers it tested showed signs of exposure to organophosphates, chemicals linked with serious health damage in some British farmers.
And Safe says the imports are matched by periodic gluts of unsellable British fruit which is usually destroyed, at a cost to taxpayers.
The European Union's Common Agricultural Policy allows farmers to take their apples and pears off the market when prices fall too low, claim compensation, and give the fruit free to schools and charities.
Yet in 1996 and 1997 4.3 million kilograms of surplus pears were either dumped in landfill sites in Britain, or fed to pigs. Not one pear was given away under the scheme.
More than 2.2 million kg of apples were treated similarly, with just 40,000 kg given away.
The Safe reports urge greater support for local, traditional orchards, using sustainable and organic methods.
They say supermarkets could give a lead by stocking local varieties of fruit transported direct to their nearest branches.