Apple orchards have become a leading livelihood source in Jammu and Kashmir as well as in Himachal Pradesh. However orchard owners have been troubled from time to time by several problems including competition from indiscriminate imports and reducing margins. In such a situation sometimes they are tempted to go in for technologies which offer a quick way to increasing yields but may be harmful in the longer term, and it is important to guard against this.
In Jammu and Kashmir some years back the government had introduced Bulgarian apple tree varieties with a lot of fanfare but these trees proved to be attractive only in the short-term and after about some years their yield was so low that orchard owners had to suffer losses in the entire deal. More recently the government has introduced a subsidized program of high density apple plantation of trees which are propagated for their value of yielding fruit earlier than traditional varieties.
The fact that these are planted densely means that if all goes well then per acre yields will be high. However there is a big if, as there are apprehensions that these trees may be giving this benefit only for a few years while the traditional varieties are much longer-lasting in terms of their fruit yield and their ability is proven. Secondly, the fruit also has to be hardy with good shelf life and there is some uncertainty about this as well. Thirdly, the traditional varieties are well adapted to local conditions and their susceptibility to pests and diseases is lower. On the other hand, the new varieties may not only be more susceptible, but the fact that these are to be grown much more densely may lead to fast spread of any such threat.
Dense monocultures of exotic trees are generally seen as a very risky proposition anywhere, and it is best to be careful. However due to heavy subsidy and a likely shorter-term gain, caution may be ignored in favor of immediate economic gain. So this appears to be the green revolution moment for these orchard owners, and one can only hope that they will eventually favor caution over immediate gain. The worry is that some of them may be misled by the initial lure of misguided subsidies, and the trend may then catch on.
The creation of apple orchards over large areas itself involves creating monocultures, and recently some orchard owners of Himachal Pradesh have been saying that it is better to have more mixed orchards, planting a greater diversity of fruits include stone fruits. In fact some fruits seen mostly only in local markets are also delicious and should certainly not be neglected. This also helps in reducing losses related to adverse weather. Recently most crops were harmed by dry and hotter than usual weather in parts of Himachal but cherry ripened earlier in hot weather and is already getting a good price in the market.
Some time back a large amount of apple planting material was imported in Himachal Pradesh from Italy and belying the high expectations from this, the actual experience has been that much of this failed to sprout at all or else was afflicted by disease.
When exotic plants are introduced, these are more and new pests quite soon. This in turn leads to more sprays of chemical pesticides. This in turn leads to the perishing of a large number of friendly insects as well, including honey bees, wild bees and butterflies. However such natural pollinators are very important for orchards and orchard owners have been forced to buy or rent boxes of bees from other areas. Recently when some of them were prevailed upon to stop chemical pesticide sprays, the natural pollinators started returning, providing an important lesson in favor of eco-friendly horticulture.
At the level of apple processing there is a strong need to avoid processing into apple based wine, for ecological and nutrition reasons. The government and liquor dealers have been using this as a way of normalizing liquor consumption in some places. Even rural women who have been in the forefront of anti-liquor protests are being invited to join work of processing into apple and fruit based wine in the name of getting better income, and this will have very adverse longer-term implications. This trend should be firmly rejected before it catches on.
Instead plenty of apples and other local fruits should be served in mid-day meals and anganwadis so that children and women from poorer families also get plenty of these nutritious fruits.
Bharat Dogra is Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.