Apples are important. They are lodged in our throats and imprinted on our cell phones. They proxy in for the unspecified fruit Eve gave Adam, and pies made out of them are quintessentially American. My graduating class planted 14 trees of them at our high school, and 30 years from now, we hope to return with spouses and children, hungry for the fruits of our labor. And as I eat this apple, alternating bites with lines of prose, I savor all this historical, cultural, and personal significance even more than its sweet flavor.
Nothing would please me more than writing an article chronicling mankind’s fixation with the apple. That says a lot about me. Fortunately for you though, the apple is even more important as a commodity than an artifact, so this is the story of how one fruit might just determine the future of American agriculture.
Earlier this week, the United States Department of Agriculture announced that it’s lifting its import restrictions on fresh apples from China. That means starting this month, China—the world’s largest producer of apples—can freely enter American markets, selling cheap and low-quality fruit in direct competition with our nation’s harvest. American officials are hoping this decision would persuade the Chinese—who only currently import red and golden delicious apples from a handful of states—to loosen their own trade restrictions in good faith.
As China’s consumption of American apples is definitely nontrivial, this expectation of requital makes sense. Interestingly, according to President of the Washington Apple Commission Todd Fryhover, Chinese consumers are especially hungry for more Red Delicious apples because their rich, crimson hue represents good fortune in their culture. But flooding American markets with Chinese apples in hope of the reverse is ultimately unfruitful triage for the more pressing problem, one that is closer to home: we just had the largest apple crop in American history and need foreign buyers to compensate for lackluster domestic demand.
Wagering the already problematic American apple industry on faith that China will reciprocate is incredibly short-sighted, especially because we’ve been unsuccessfully trying to get the nation to relent on its import restrictions for a couple years now. Even if they do, it won’t amount to much.
If you’ve been following the Chinese’s apple purchasing closely for the past couple years (like, who hasn’t?), you would notice that China doesn’t really need American apples.
China purchased its largest shipment of Australian apples just this week, and will start importing from South Africa, where farm labor and manufacturing is much cheaper that in the states, in May. Domestically, China produces nine times as many apples as the US does with lower costs of production, and accordingly exports more apples than it imports by a margin larger than America’s entire apple supply. This is all to say the USDA is either lying or kidding itself when it says that it expects China to contribute no more than 0.4% of apples consumed in America.
There are reasons why we haven’t welcomed Chinese apples in the past. China’s atrocious food safety regulations and pollution problems pose a serious threat to American consumers. And the USDA initially barred Chinese apples because they carry invasive pests like the Oriental fruit fly that could destroy entire crops of American apples. These dangers, unlike the government’s attitude towards them, haven’t changed.
We’re on the verge of an apple crisis with some pretty precarious implications on the health of American consumers and livelihoods of American farmers. And as President Obama attempts to fast track the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the coattails of the purportedly infallible “free” trade model, these same issues with the trade balance and safety will emerge in other sectors of the agriculture economy as well. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement just a couple decades ago, the abrupt influx of cheap foreign food reversed our once impressive agriculture trade surplus and brought hundreds of thousands of farmers to bankruptcy. It looks like we haven’t learned from our mistake.
The integrity of the American economy does not boil down to apple trade. But at its core, the apple is important. It demystified gravity. It has kept doctor after doctor away. It almost killed Snow White, for Christ’s sake. And in a matter of months, it will be shipped by the ton from China to a supermarket near you, leaving an important American industry to rot.
Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Apley Court. His column appears on alternate Fridays.