By Donella Meadows
–October 9, 1986–
“Apples are wonderful food. Everything in nature wants to eat them. That’s why I have to use pesticides.”
It was late August, and Steve Wood was showing me his crop at Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, N.H. The nearly-ripe apples were covered with a gray residue from the last spray of the season — Guthion against apple maggot, Captec against scab. Wood said, “The pesticides have dispersed by now; we’re just seeing the clay, the carrier in the spray.”
I wondered whether I was walking in a chemical jungle. But bees were working the goldenrod, and a monarch butterfly lighted on a clover blossom.
Steve picked an apple to show me a brown stain on its skin. “Tarnished plant bug damage. Only cosmetic, but I have to keep it under control. People won’t buy an apple that looks like that.” Without concern for the clinging residue, he tossed the apple for his dog to catch in midair.
“Look, I’m careful with chemicals. I’m on the front line, so are my workers. I know the toxicities. Organophosphates scare me the most. I wear rubber suits and respirators, and I have my cholinesterase tested every year; my workers’ too. But organophosphates break down fast. They do the job and then they’re gone. They’re the safest choice I’ve got.”
“I’ve cut down on chemicals, using IPM. So has every good grower in the state.”
IPM means Integrated Pest Management, a combination of monitoring pest populations, encouraging natural predators, and using pesticides only when an infestation is likely and only in reduced dosage. With IPM growers use much less pesticide than in the old days, when they sprayed 15-20 times a year whether pests were there or not.
To be successful with IPM you really have to know your bugs. Steve Wood can talk a mile a minute about syrphids and cecidomyiids, about ascospores and pseudothecia. He attends pest-management seminars and reads pamphlets and books. Above all he’s out looking at his trees, seeing miniscule dramas you and I would never notice.
He grabs an apple leaf and whips out the magnifying glass hanging from a chain around his neck. “European red mites,” he announces glumly. “In the spring I spray with oil to smother their eggs. I try to avoid miticides, because the mites hatch out 12-14 generations a season, and they get resistant very easily. But if they get bad late in the season, I may have to nuke ’em.”
“Nuke ’em” means bring out the chemicals, which Steve had to do seven times this year, even with IPM. His meticulous record book starts with Captan and Maneb/zinc in mid-April and goes on through Polyram, Pounce, Dichlone, Paraquat, Benomyl, Sevin, Thiodan, and Alar.
Steve must have seen me wince when we got down the list to Alar. It is suspected to be a carcinogen, and the Environmental Protection Agency has been wavering for a year about banning it. Intense publicity has made buyers shun Alar-treated fruit.
“Unfair,” Steve fumes. “The public has been misinformed, and the growers are losing a valuable tool. If I had read only the public reports about Alar, I’d avoid it too, but I’ve seen the scientific studies. I’ve been on the phone all summer, I’ve been talking to the EPA and the National Cancer Institute, I’ve been listening to all sides. I’m convinced that the risk of getting cancer from my apples is zero.”
Alar is a growth-suppressant. In New England it is used to hold apples on the tree until they are fully ripe. Without Alar a tree may drop its fruit nearly overnight. Hand-picked dessert apples sell for $14/bushel; drops go to the cider mill for $1.60/bushel.
At Poverty Lane Alar is applied only in the distant orchards that get picked last. Wood uses less of it now than he used to, and he says if there’s clear evidence of its danger he’ll give it up entirely. In the meantime he refuses to label his untreated apples Alar-free — “that would be profiteering from a general misfortune.”
“Growers aren’t trying to poison people; they’re trying to produce good, abundant food. We use as few chemicals as we can. We care about the environment too. But it doesn’t work to grow apples with no pesticides at all. If you show me it works, I’ll be the first to try it.”
“We’re selling to a public that’s afraid of pesticides but also afraid of scab spots on an apple skin. We’re policed by an agency that can’t get its shoes on the right feet in the morning. Good research people are sucked up by the chemical companies instead of working on nonchemical control methods.”
“If you really want to be sure your food is safe from chemicals, you’re going to have to support massive public expenditure, for regulation and for research. If you don’t want to spend that money, then don’t squeeze the grower in the middle. Don’t be sqeamish about pesticides and then demand cosmetically-perfect fruit.”
In terms of bushels produced per pound of pesticide used, the apple industry is using only one-tenth as much pesticide as it did in the 1940’s, thanks to IPM. That’s a remarkable achievement, but it’s still a lot of chemicals. I would like to convince Steve that apples can be grown organically, but apples are probably the hardest crop to grow that way. The organic growers I know use “natural” pesticides like rotenone and pyrethrum, extracted from plants, which can be as ecologically disruptive as synthetics.
A month later I came back to Poverty Lane to buy a bushel of Macs. The apples on my own trees, grown without pesticides, were shriveled and wormy. Steve’s were beautiful, the gray residue was gone, they tasted wonderful. Everything in nature wants to eat apples, even pro-organic environmental purists like me.
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011