Heirloom Apples and the Problem of Decreasing Biodiversity
Project Manager: I will oversee all aspects of the project. Make sure that it functions well and looks appealing to visitors. I will control the information that goes onto the site as well as having final say on all plans for the project.
Computer Science Engineer: In a perfect world I would have someone with a background in coding on my staff. Their responsibilities would include building the actual site so that I wouldn’t have to use a platform like WordPress, which I plan to use for my site.
Designer: Preferably someone with experience in graphic design or someone with experience in digital humanities with a focus in design who would be able to work with the computer science engineer to make the site look incredible.
Researchers: One or two individuals who would be able to help me track down as many different varieties of apples (and possibly other foods as the project expands) as possible and input the information into the site.
Marketing: Someone to promote the site and come up with ways to make the site profitable.
Outreach Coordinator: Someone who could talk to different growers around the country and get in touch with grassroots organizations and farmers who are working to preserve heirloom crops.
The lack of biodiversity in our food supply is quickly becoming a major issue. There were once thousands of varieties of apples, but today 15 varieties account for 90% of apples produced in the United States (Hensley). Further, it is estimated that 86% of historic varieties are completely extinct (Nuwer). It may not initially be obvious as to why this is such a big problem. First, there is the issue of historic preservation. Once these apples become extinct there is very little hope of ever recovering them. Apple trees cannot simply be grown from seeds, but instead a small part of the tree must be grafted onto a rootstock (Hensley). So, once the last tree of a certain variety dies, there is no hope of recovering that particular type of apple. Conversely, planting an apple seed in the ground will cause a cross breed between that particular variety of apple and whatever pollen is used. Generally this results in crab apples, but it is also a way that new varieties are created. So there may be new varieties out there that are still unknown. By not classifying and preserving these varieties of fruit we are losing out on an important piece of American history.
My personal interest in biodiversity in food began a few years ago when my parents bought some property that has an apple tree on it that grows Transparents. They have a very thin skin and are sweet with a delicate tart flavor if they are picked a little to early. Transparents are very rare and difficult to find mainly because they bruise easily and don’t keep well for very long. Supermarkets keep apples for up to a year in cold storage before putting them on shelves, and so they want heartier varieties. However, they don’t use apples that naturally have the longest storage lives, and instead spray chemicals on them. Perhaps it would be less tragic to me that biodiversity was decreasing if the apples in stores were actually good. It is truly astonishing to me that we so easily give up that diversity for Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples, neither of which, in my opinion, is very good. We give up apples with rich flavor and texture to eat year old apples that are mushy on the inside and have leathery skin on the outside.
However, the problem of decreasing biodiversity in our food supply goes much further than just an issue of historical preservation. It is dangerous to put all of our eggs in one basket so to speak. The Irish Potato Famine happened because farmers were relying on one breed of potato, the Irish Lumper, and when those crops became diseased a million people died as a result (Nuwer). Biodiversity is an absolutely essential part of sustainable agricultural systems. If we rely on 15 varieties of apples, then if just one of those apple varieties experience some catastrophe that drive them into extinction it becomes a huge loss both for growers and consumers. Take for example the current crisis with banana crops. Bananas as we know them may potentially become extinct, something that has already happened once. Bananas used to have more nutrition and last much longer before browning. The bananas we eat today require artificial ripening to be edible (Prisco). That is quite a downgrade. Imagine the issues we could encounter in the next variety of banana the industry decides to embrace. Food isn’t just getting less variable it is getting less nutritious.
This decrease in the nutritional value of fruits has a large impact on human health. Different varieties of the same fruit have different nutrition profiles. One might have more Vitamin C and another might have more Potassium. For example, eating all the same cloned apples, oranges, and bananas all the time, especially if they make up a large part of an individuals fruit consumption, may leave them susceptible to nutrient deficiencies. On the other hand, eating many different types of fruits, as well as different varieties within those types, will offer much better nutrition (FAO). Although it is not the only area of the food system that needs to change, promoting the preservation and growth of these heirloom apple varieties, as well as different varieties of other fruits, vegetables, and even animals is imperative. It not only has important historical significance, but also is also important for agricultural sustainability and in human nutrition.
I would like to use WordPress to host the site because it is a platform that I have used before and am comfortable with. This way I will not have to learn a new platform and how to use the technology I intend on using.
There is actually a plugin for WordPress called a wiki plugin that turns the site into a searchable database that is similar to Wikipedia. This is perfect for my project because it would be an easy way to make a database of information about different varieties of apples. Not only would it be simple for me to make, but also it would be comfortable for users who are used to the set up of Wikipedia. It is so much simpler than many academic sites that rely on more complicated methods of creating searchable databases. Because there are so many different varieties of apples this part could be difficult to complete in the time given. I would be interested in potentially making it a crowd source type project and allowing users to edit the site the same way that Wikipedia does. Although I am not sure if this would work given that I don’t have the time to devote to being a moderator.
To create the map I would like to use Google Fusion Tables for a few different reasons. I have limited experience with Fusion Tables, but I know that it is generally an easy tool to use. Further, I will be able to display the information that I want, and it is easy for other people to edit. They will therefore be able to easily drop a pin on their hometown with a description of the variety of apple tree they have and even include a picture. This will create a community aspect to the site and make it a tool that is not only useful to potential heirloom growers, but to anyone who has an apple tree in their yard or an interest in growing apples.
In general my intention with this project is to point out the incredible diversity that apples, and perhaps someday other fruits and vegetables, have to offer. I would like to be able to connect heirloom farmers with people who are interested in growing apples. I think adding the ability to upload pictures and locations of certain trees will create a lot more interest in the site. Further, it would be cool to have some way for people to message one another so that they might be able to connect memories of apples they ate as children with people who are able to tell them what those apples are. The current agricultural system is not going to make any changes. Monsanto is not going to start promoting the production of heirloom apples or calling for biodiversity. Walmart is not going to go out of its way to find and stock Yellow Transparents. It has to be individuals connecting and building a community that supports sustainable agriculture. It has to start with us calling for better standards, nutrition, and variety in food. That is why I think that projects that bring us back to our historical roots and help us to eat these foods from 100 years ago, in ways we ate them 100 years ago is so important. Not everyone has access to a community farm, but utilizing the internet they may be able to find a way to access and grow these foods and be that change in their own community. Perhaps that is too lofty of a goal for this project, but that is the spirit I am placing into the project.
Bulleted list of deliverables and timeline for completion:
- Collect information about varieties of heirloom apples that still exist and where these apples are grown. Preferably complete by the end of March. *
- Create a site that offers information about the different varieties (what they are used for, what they look like, ect). Preferably complete by the end of March. *
- Include a map, which includes locations where these varieties can be found. However, make it interactive so that growers are able to add their own trees to the site. Make it so that people who have apple trees in their yards of unspecified varieties can also add their trees along with pictures to the map so that others can possibly identify them. Preferably complete by the end of April. *
- Expand the site to include more than just apples, but resources that link people to many different types of heirloom fruits and vegetables. This way, there will be a central location to access seeds and scions. Ongoing.
Ideally, the project will be ready to launch at the end of this semester. My intention is to build the site using WordPress and so it will technically be public at all stages of production. The official launch will be during my class presentation. If the site turns out to be a real success I may reach out to some people within the heirloom produce community to see if they are interested in the project. There is a fairly large grassroots movement that might be interested in utilizing those resources. However, I may not be able to finish the project by this point, or it may not quite be thorough enough to actively seek out potential users. In order to feel comfortable doing so I would need a fairly comprehensive list of apple varieties as well as a working map.
End of life issues:
Once I am finished I doubt that I will personally want to keep up the site. However, as I stated above there is a large grassroots organization interested in the preservation of heirloom apples. It is possible that in reaching out to different people in this community I could find someone who would be interested in taking over maintenance on the site. If not, I suppose it will sit on a server somewhere, but I could always include my contact information should someone find it and want to take over maintenance.
Hensley, Tim. “Apples of Your Eye.” Smithsonianmag.com. Smithsonian Institute, Nov. 2002.Web. 10 Feb. 2016.
“Nutrition.” Biodiversity. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.
Nuwer, Rachel. “The World’s Most Endangered Food.” BBC.com. N.p., 1 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.
Prisco, Jacopo. “Why Bananas as We Know Them Might Go Extinct (again) – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 8 Jan. 2016. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.