Climate change and fruits: the effect on the redness of apples

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Scientific studies indicate that approximately 25% of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions come from agriculture. The increase in population and the demand for food will bring about an inevitable increase in these emissions, with which the agricultural sector has a significant impact on the problem of climate change.

While scientists agree that the main cause is the use of fossil fuels and their consequent release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphereThere are other gases with an environmental impact such as methane and nitrous oxide, mainly originated in agricultural activities.

The release of GHG alters the balance between the gases in the atmosphere, and its effect is greater energy retention, global warming, and eventually climate change.

At the crop level, global warming leads to changes in the phenology (study of the phases of the botanical cycle of the crop) of many species. Changes occur in the agronomic phases, which are affected by seasonal and interannual variations in climate. For example, the early onset of flowering in periods that are not optimal for this, advancement of the sprouting and ripening of fruits and their size, sugar content for industrial use, vitamin value, and so on.

One of the most studied effects of climate change are phenological changes in fruit growing and their effects on production. The effect on apple production is particularly interesting.

The case of apples, one of the 3 most consumed fruits

Why apples? Apple (Malus Domestica) is an important and popular fruit that is one of the three most consumed fruits on the planet. The average consumption in the world reached in 2018 approximately 9 kg / capita (FAOSTAT).

World production is estimated for the 2020/21 season at 75.9 million tons. These estimates foresee a decrease in relation to the previous harvest due to climatic phenomena that affected producing regions such as China, the world’s leading producer, where the spring frosts in the northwest region have caused significant damage to production. Regardless of the effects on production levels, it is also expected that the size of the fruit will be smaller in relation to other years.

Like other deciduous species (species that lose their leaves every year), apple trees are characterized by a dormant period, which has allowed the species to adapt to the winter conditions typical of the climates where they originated. The alternation of winter cold and the increase in temperatures towards the beginning of spring allow the apple tree to break dormancy and thus reach flowering and budding, after the corresponding accumulation of hours of cold.

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Climate change has had an impact on the alteration of phenology in apple cultivation. In different regions of Europe and Japan, the flowering date has advanced throughout the last decade, towards suboptimal periods from the physiological point of view, increasing the incidence of pests and reducing productivity.

Research conducted in Japan concludes that the taste and texture of some of the most popular apple varieties have been modified due to early flowering and higher temperatures during fruit ripening.

One of the most significant phenomena produced by climate change is the influence on the color of the Red Delicious, Gala and Fuji varieties. The red color depends on genetics and high ambient temperatures will not allow the gene to express itself and as a result will not produce enough pigments that give apples their red color.

According to studies carried out in regions such as the central valley of California or southern Chile, they could be affected by the lack of enough cold hours that in the first instance oblige producers to use cold compensators or variety changes that allow sustainable production.

Other areas in which important effects of climate change were observed is the New York state in which there are clear indications that part of the cultivated varieties will disappear in a few years due to less resistance to high temperatures or the high need to accumulate cold hours, which will force future apple plantations to be reprogrammed.

In the Himalayan region of India, changes in the temperature regime generated a steady decline in quantity and quality of apples produced due to the alteration of the natural flowering seasons and pollination systems, causing damage to the shape, size and quality of apples from the Himalayan region. In some cases, in order to run the business sustainably an attempt was made to replant the apple orchards a greater height to ensure the quality and quantity necessary to maintain sustainability of the business and in other cases the producers stop producing apples, and try to stay in the agricultural business through other crops.

The Argentine situation in the Upper Valle del Río Negro

In Argentina, the cultivation of apples has been located in the Rio Negro Valley for several decades, generating a substantial part of employment and the generation of foreign exchange in that Patagonian province. Data published in the latest SENASA yearbook indicate a planted area of ​​just over 14,300 hectares, which represents approximately 77% of apple production. It should be noted that apple production has remained stable since 2017, after a significant decline of the same between the years 2016 to 2017.

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The last few years are also characterized by an important process of technological stagnation. Part of this stagnation can be explained by the production structure of the sector, in which 74% of producers own less than 10 hectares, with limited access to technologies and cultivation systems that allow the economic and environmental sustainability of their properties. This situation is an important part of the reasons why small producers they leave the activity looking for lower risk alternatives.

Most of the production is dedicated to domestic market (51%) and about a 15% is exported; the Red Delicius variety is the most widely cultivated. In recent years this variety has lost ground internationally, with varieties such as Pink Lady those of preference in the international market. In Argentina, only 5% of the surface It is of this type of variety, which requires a license to be cultivated.

The need for a conversion

An important area of ​​the Argentine fruit sector is based on the production of plantations with more than 30 years old and low production. And the reconversion that this requires must also take into account the effects generated by climate change. The next few years will be characterized by a decrease in rainfall and an increase in temperatures with the consequent process of aridity in the region.

The analysis of climatic data has identified periods with the predominance of high pressures during the autumn-winter, which caused a lower frequency of cold fronts in the region and favored an atmospheric circulation characterized by scant rainfall and warmer than usual temperatures.

This set of factors directly influences the historical downspouts that register the Neuquén, Limay and Negro rivers. It is expected the acceleration of processes of desertification of thousands of hectares and soil degradation.

This lack of water resources would generate new challenges for the fruit production sector, in reference to the massive entry of irrigation and fertigation technologies. At the level of production and product quality, changes are expected in the sugar content in the fruit and its acidity, changes in the color and size of the fruits.

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Sustainable practices, a consumer demand

The sector will have to look for varieties that adapt to climatic changes and, not least, at consumer demands that regardless of price and quality, look for additional values, such as questions of environmental sustainability.

We must take into account that the competitiveness of the sector was largely based on the abundance of natural resources and low-skilled labor. The result of this structure has been the little diversification, little added value and a crop with low technological investment.

The high vulnerability of agricultural systems under conditions dictated by climate change, forces the sector to study the information in order to determine trends of changes with which the phenomena associated with climate change are presented. In addition, you must visualize the possible scenarios that allow you to provide producers with short and long-term projections.

Ongoing investigations have shown the relevance of the coverage of fruit farms with various plastic materials to minimize the inconveniences generated by changes in the frequency and intensity of climatic events. The correct use of various materials reduces the impact of rain, hail, frost and excess sunlight.

The Rio Negro valley was historically characterized by good coloration, although with frequent exposure to hail damage. The installation of meshes to avoid this has brought notable unexpected consequences improvements in health and colorimetric coverage of fruits. Increasing investments are expected to extend this technological novelty.

The sustainability of the sector requires investments in digitization that are innovative, and that through the use of disruptive technologies allow the integration of meteorological data with irrigation data and existing conditions in the soil. Identify and predict deficiencies, optimize harvest periods, prevent diseases, etc. The use of sensors that can send information in real time and technologies that know how to collect, store, process and manage data, are essential for this task.

Daniel Werner is director of the Department of Foreign Relations and International Cooperation (CFTIC), in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of Israel.

Mariano Winograd is a fruit grower.

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