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MONIKA JUNG-MOUNIB, Agricultural and Food-Industry Writer Düsseldorf, Germany

As the globalization of the food chain continues to expand, it can become increasingly difficult for local traditions to survive. It is an issue that is occuring around the globe. Take, for example, Germany’s love of apples and reliance on its meadow orchards for quality, pesticide-free juice.

In 2017, the average German drank 7.8 litres of apple juice, rivaled only by orange juice (7.4 litres per head) and “Schorle” (5.7 litres) a trendy drink which is a mixture of sparkling water and apple, cherry, plum, or pear juice. In Germany, it is widely assumed that the apples used for making the juice do not contain any pesticides or fertilizers. But with increasing globalization, the promise of no pesticides cannot be guaranteed. Rather, most juices, even those labeled as bio-juices, are made from an industrial concentrate imported from Asia, mainly China, which gets enriched with acids and aromas.

It is these increasing imports of apple juice from the other side of the world that have Germans alarmed, because the imports touch two of their ecological worries: On one hand, Germans worry about the survival of traditional meadow orchards of which “Most” — which is a murky, freshly pressed apple juice — is the main product and is a symbol of the traditional culture of pressing. “Most” represents healthy nutrition because it is in its murk that polyphenol, a secondary phytochemical, is hidden. Polyphenol supports the digestive system with its antioxidants. One can see it on a cut apple; it is what produces the brown edges or blotches.

On the other hand, Germans have been alarmed by the many media headlines about industrial agriculture posing a threat to nature’s biodiversity as well as being responsible for the dying of bees, insects, and birds.

It is against this background that the growing popular and governmental efforts to support the spread of traditional meadow orchards in Germany can be understood. A meadow orchard basically comprises fruit trees that are scattered on agricultural lands or meadows. The trees grow quite high, in contrast to fruit trees in modern fruit orchards, and they are composed of two “stories” which turn them into an almost ideal ecological system:

  • The “upstairs” consists of widely grown branches, forming a large crown, which offers a home to thousands of insects, beetles, and spiders, as well as to wasps, bees, and bumblebees. Hence, with bees dying and fewer insects around, meadow orchards seem to be a paradise we have almost lost.
  • The “downstairs,” with its grass and herbs, opens up as an ideal base for other insects, bugs, frogs, and other life; the grass can eventually be used as hay; and more birds have been counted flying over them and stopping for food than over modern orchards.

EUROPE’S DISAPPEARING TRADITION. One must bear in mind though that it was only until the 1950s that meadow orchards were widespread in Germany and Central Europe. With plots totalling 1.5 billion hectares in Germany alone at the time, they were a distinctive feature of the country’s landscape and its culture. But today, the use of modern, intensive agriculture and the spread of settlements has led to the uprooting of most of them. Until 1974, the EU even paid farmers to plant about 3,000 trees per hectare on that fertile soil. A traditional orchard, in contrast, contains only 60 to 120 trees per hectare.

Then in the 1980s, organizations protecting nature moved in. Ever since, they have been trying to make the traditional meadow orchards and making one’s own “Most” popular again. This is not only because traditional meadow orchards are lovely but also because the meadow orchard farmers pledge to not use pesticides or fertilizers and to apply only organic production methods. In addition, their regionally grown apples such as Boskoop, Bittenfelder, Brettacher, and Berlepsch have high levels of the healthy polyphenol and can be eaten by people who are usually allergic to apples.

Even governments have become enthusiastic about traditional meadow orchards: In 2017, Northrhine-Westfalia started offering pruning fruit tree courses and launched a network for protecting traditional meadow orchards as they now account for only about 300,000 hectares throughout Germany. In late June, the German minister of the environment, Svenja Schulze, travelled to Northrhine-Westphalia to honor the Watermann Meadow Orchard with a badge designating it as an “exemplary meadow orchard.”

Although this may sound like a happy ending for tradition … one must not turn a blind eye on the greater reality which is in stark contrast and illustrates a dynamic driven by globalization: China, as Germany’s primary trade partner in 2017 with 100.5 billion Euro, has become one of the leading apple producers in the world. It produced 38.5 million tons of apples on a plot of 2.3 million hectares of modern meadow orchards, of which the province Shandong is known to be one of the most important apple regions in the country. This was shown at the “Interpoma China” fair in 2017 in Europe.

On top of that, China also has become the biggest exporter of apple juice concentrate. As far back as 2009, China was producing 51% of the world´s apple juice concentrate; in the 2017/18 season, China increased its exports of apple juice by 37%. Although its export of apple juice concentrate to Germany decreased from 31,650 tons in 2010 to 10,201 tons in 2017, China’s exports of apple juice concentrate to the U.S. and Russia have almost doubled compared to the previous year.

So, while globalization makes the world come closer, it threatens the familiar and traditional ways of growing foods at the same time. Eventually, it may have an impact on the average consumer’s health.