Upon first glance, the Cosmic Crisp apple doesn’t appear particularly unique nor inspiring. It is larger than the average apple, certainly, but its mottled exterior could be confused for many other reddish varietals. In other words, one would not know immediately that this humble fruit is the pinnacle of industrial agriculture — encompassing hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, two decades of planning, and hundreds of trees bred, tasted, and culled.
The phrase “apple farmer” inspires images of pastoral orchards, straw hats and wooden buckets full of fruit; yet modern agriculture practices fall far from that imagined tree. A Darwinian tasting process brought the Cosmic Crisp into being: in the late 1990s, Bruce Barrett, an apple researcher at Washington State University, picked the Cosmic Crisp out of 10,000 crossbreeds. The Cosmic Crisp, then known as WA 38, ticked all the boxes: its ability to survive in different Washington state climates, its taste and texture, and how long it lasted without decaying. (Supposedly the Cosmic Crisp can last around a year in cold storage.) A consulting firm tested the apple with focus groups, where one participant commented on the apple’s appearance as star-like, which led to the name. As with many modern seeds, Washington State owns the rights, and thus growers must pay royalties in exchange for growing the apple. The apple was so widely believed to be “the apple of the future” (as the New York Times put it) that 13 million trees were grown at a cost of $500 million. To extend the selling season, producers store the apple in a refrigerated, controlled atmosphere of 1% carbon dioxide and 2% oxygen after treating it with fungicides. Instagram influencers were hired to help hype its release, including a retired astronaut.
In short, the Cosmic Crisp apple — the investment, the marketing, the focus groups, and the vast industrial apparatus that crafted it — is a techno-capitalist triumph. The entire production process is as intricate and involved as any tech-infused consumer commodity, like a smartwatch or laptop.
Knowing that they would arrive this fall, I began, back in September, inquiring to grocery store clerks as to their arrival. I was generally met with blank stares or confused replies; it would seem consumers were not hotly anticipating the apple’s launch as they might an Apple product launch, despite the massive investment in the apple’s fortunes.
When I first spotted one — at a Trader Joe’s in southern California on December 17 — it was unceremonious. There were a number of apple bins, indistinct aside from signage. The Cosmic Crisp, red and flecked, sat quietly in the middle.
Even if sales are tepid this winter, it is probable that we will see the apple on store shelves for years, possibly even decades. The Cosmic Crisp may well be too big to fail; the collective investment guarantees it.
* * *
More important than the production process, of course, is the taste. What does the zenith of industrial agriculture taste like? For comparison’s sake, I tasted the Cosmic Crisp alongside four other modern industrial apple breeds: Gala, Pink Lady, Honeycrisp, and the (unenviably named) Envy. All reddish apples, I expected there to be a number of similarities, in particular with Honeycrisp — as the Cosmic Crisp is a crossbreed between that and the Enterprise apple, which I’d hope to add to the tasting, but couldn’t find on shelves.
The goal of this selection, in part, was to get a cross-section of popular and older apple breeds, ones that have often been interbred. The Gala is well known and dates back to the 1930s in New Zealand; it recently surpassed Red Delicious to become the most produced apple cultivar in the United States. Unlike the other apples on my list, the Gala was bred prior to the discovery of DNA’s structure.
The Envy apple is a cross between a Braeburn and a Gala, introduced in 2009. Pink Lady apples, also known as Cripps Pinks, were created in Australia as a hybrid between the Golden Delicious and the Lady Williams, another apple primarily grown in Australia.
The Honeycrisp, as mentioned above, is an increasingly popular hybrid created at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s, but which only recently became increasingly popular due to the large cell size that produces the apple’s storied crispness. Notoriously easy to bruise, the Cosmic Crisp is considered an improvement on it in most ways.
The most curious aspect of the Cosmic Crisp is the sound it produces upon taking a bite. It is the platonic ideal of a crunchy apple; Foley artists supposedly record bites of other fruits, like bell peppers and onion, to imitate an apple crunch in film, and indeed, the Cosmic Crisp’s crunch sounds like it was ripped from their sound library. Supposedly, food is sensory in ways far beyond taste — texture, appearance, and sound all play into our enjoyment.
The flavor of the apple is somewhat strong, moreso than the Gala but less so than the Envy. The Cosmic Crisp apple is not particularly tart, though its sweetness is fainter and less prominent than other apples — particularly the saccharine Honeycrisp. There is a faint echo of a Granny Smith in the Cosmic Crisp’s flavor, though it is far sweeter and crunchier.
The Pink Lady tasted sharp and tart in comparison to the Cosmic Crisp, whereas the Honeycrisp’s sweetness was more overwhleming. Envy had a more complex flavor beyond mere sweet and tartness, and was far more distinct, with the faint tartness hanging in the mouth. Notably, the organic Envy apples I tasted were better than the inorganic. Gala was the least crunch.
In head-to-head competition, the Envy and the Honeycrisp taste more like apple candy in comparison to the Cosmic Crisp. The Pink Lady was the least crisp and the tartest, which is very prominent compared to the Cosmic Crisp.
While paired with cheese, the Gala wins out; with peanut butter, the Honeycrisp might be best. But in terms of an overall eating apple, the Cosmic Crisp is the winner. Perhaps all that money and focus groups were worth it.
Still, one arena in which the Cosmic Crisp — and all these apples — are a loser is in uniqueness. The apple was created to be mass-produced; all the trees are clones of each other, and you can tell nothing of the origin in which these fruits were produced. There is no genetic variation or sign of terroir. Every Cosmic Crisp is identical to every other one.
It is uniform, and tastes like it was created by a focus group. In that sense, it is not altogether different from a Marvel movie or the new Star Wars, massively expensive crowd-pleasers honed by corporate marketers and technologists.
The challenge for Cosmic Crisp growers — and for the entire apple industry in general — is that food trends are changing. Few food critics desire industrial uniformity, and many pine for the variety produced by traditional agricultural practices.
Likewise, consumers seem to be getting hip to the idea that it isn’t necessarily desirable, nor sustainable, for fruit and vegetables to resemble identical commodities, as if hammered out on an assembly line. There is a reason “handmade” and “DIY” ethos are in: there is a charm to that which is unique, not mass-produced, to objects that have their own sheen to them. Such a consumer ethos seems to track in lock-step with the current hegemonic social trend of neoliberal identity politics — specifically, the sort of atomized celebration of specific and individual identities. Hence, many consumers want to taste the genetic variation, to perceive the fruits’ origin, to taste the terroir in their cells.
Luckily, this emergent consumer ethos is also better for the planet. The Incas planted different varieties of potatoes bred for different elevations and observed that this prevented famine, as genetic variation comes with built-in resistance to pests. Humans since then have understood that genetic variation is a bulwark against pests. Breeding a million identical cloned Cosmic Crisp apple trees means an increased need for fungicides, as their genetic resistance is effectively zero. The same lack of foresight will soon doom the world’s supply of Cavendish bananas — the most common breed of consumer banana in the United States and which, similarly to the Cosmic Crisp, are all clones of each other and thus require increasing levels of pesticide to survive.
The Cosmic Crisp may be the apple of the near future. Yet in the long run, it cannot outrun disease, or the necessity to make agriculture less pesticide- and oil-intensive in order to save humanity.