Despite growing public interest, the effects of climate change on the taste and quality of foods is still unclear. But according to Japanese researchers, some apples are only shells of their old selves, and climate change is likely to blame. Some fear apples may never taste the same again.

The researchers, from the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Japan, compared samples of Fuji and Tsugarus apples with 30-40 years of similar studies, only to find that today’s apples are mealier and have a lower flavor concentration. The researchers point to a steady decrease in malic acid, believed to be key to the fruit’s taste, as a potential culprit.

Understanding the research

The researchers examined climate trends of the past 40 years in Japan’s two apple-growing regions, Nagano and Aomori. Temperatures in both locations have risen about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit in that time, which has also led to earlier flowering dates for the apple trees.

According to the study, the freshness of apples has also been affected by rising temperatures during the growing season. That could be contributing to the fact that today’s apples are also more susceptible to watercore, a disease that causes apples to start breaking down as soon as they mature. While the study was observational and didn’t confirm that increased temperature affects apple taste and texture, it referenced a 2010 report published in the journal Global Change Biology in which the correlation was confirmed in lab experiments.  

Rising temperatures are affecting apples even outside of the summer months. Apples, like other fruit, depend on a certain amount of cold winter weather before they bloom and grow. Shorter, warmer winters can result in as much harm to a crop as a hot summer. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, insufficient winter chilling conditions result in decreased fruit production, and can result in a complete crop failure.

The implications beyond apples

The importance of this study's findings is larger than the impact on apples alone. If in fact climate change is affecting the world’s apples, it's unlikely they will be the only crop to see changes in taste and texture. Today’s crops face a variety of harsher weather conditions, from increased temperature to extended droughts, more severe rainstorms and floods, and shorter (and sometimes more extreme) winters, all of which could potentially alter their growth patterns.

However, not all crops are predicted to struggle through climate change. A group of Princeton University researchers projected how South African maize and wheat crops would perform under climate change from 2046 to 2065, and found their yields could increase by 6.5 and 15.2 percent respectively. But we can’t just eat corn and bread.

While farmable land and favorable weather conditions may decline, technology may improve quickly enough to make farming more efficient and improve distribution to ensure a fresher product and less waste. According to an EPA report in June 2013, as much as 40% of food produced in America is thrown away, so there’s lots of room for improvement.

These research findings aren’t promising for crop industries or consumers. While these changes may shift our diet toward crops that thrive in warmer climates, the transition won’t happen overnight, and we may be able to develop technology to offset these changes before apples grow as mush.

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