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Can a new apple take over the world?

Cosmic Crisp apples Image copyright PVM
Image caption The breeding programme behind the Cosmic Crisp started back in 1997

When you hear that a new variety of apple is being launched with a multi-million dollar marketing campaign, you might wonder if you were listening properly, and whether the product is actually an Apple iPhone.

But now starting to hit grocery shelves in the US, and then overseas early in 2020, is a new American-born apple that its backers are convinced will become the new global bestseller - the Cosmic Crisp.

"The stars are aligning for this apple," says Kathryn Grandy, marketing director of US fruit firm Proprietary Variety Management (PVM), the company handling the $10m (£7.9m) launch of the new variety.

A cross-breed between two existing apples - the Honeycrisp and the Enterprise - advocates of the Crisp describe it as some sort of apple holy grail. It is said to be sweet, crisp and juicy. But as importantly, it is said to have a previously unheralded shelf life, staying fresh for up to a year if kept chilled.

Image copyright PVM
Image caption Kate Evans and Bruce Barritt led the development of the Cosmic Crisp at Washington State University's department of horticulture

"The Cosmic Crisp maintains excellent eating quality in refrigerated storage, easily for 10 to 12 months," says Kate Evans, who co-led the apple's breeding programming at Washington State University's department of horticulture.

You might think that this all sounds like hyperbole, but hundreds of apple growers in the Crisp's home state have bet $40m that it is going to be a hit.

The story of the Crisp began back in 1997, when its breeding programme started at Washington State University. The idea was to develop a new variety of apple to help Washington's then beleaguered apple farmers.

The state remains the biggest grower of apples in the US, but it had seen sales of its two most-planted varieties - the Golden Delicious and Red Delicious - fall continually over the years, as consumers switched to newer rivals that were both sweeter and stayed crisper for longer, such as Pink Lady and Royal Gala.

Image copyright PVM
Image caption Hundreds of apple growers across Washington state, such as West Mathison, have switched to growing the Crisp

Originally known as WA 38, the Cosmic Crisp was given the "cosmic" part of its moniker because its skin colour of white speckles on a dark red background is said to resemble stars in the night sky. The name is now trademarked by the university.

First made available for commercial planting in 2017, Washington's apple farmers had long heard of just how good the new variety was supposed to be. Demand for the Crisp was so high that farmers had to enter a lottery to be able to get their hands on the first seedlings. Their names were randomly drawn by a computer program.

Sales of Crisp seedlings subsequently boomed. Today more than 12 million Crisp trees are growing across Washington, with orchards covering some 12,000 acres.

With the first apples now on the shelves, it is estimated that this giant planting scheme - said to be the biggest and fastest in world apple history - has cost the growers a combined $30m.

Image copyright PVM
Image caption The $10m marketing campaign includes online advertising

In return for this confidence, the Washington farmers have been given the exclusive rights to grow and sell the Crisp worldwide until 2027. And as the Crisp is being marketed as a premium variety, its price reflects this.

The first apples are now on sale in the US for $5 per pound (per 454g), this is more than three times the cost of standard varieties. For every 40lb box sold, a royalty of 4.75% is shared between Washington State University and its commercial partner, the previously mentioned PVM.

More than 467,000 40lb boxes are now projected to be shipped before the end of this year, rising to two million in 2020, and 5.6 million by 2021. The apple even has a trademarked slogan - "Imagine the possibilities".

"The rate at which Cosmic Crisp is poised to come into the US market in the next five to eight years is unprecedented," says James Luby, a professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

But does the world need another apple variety, what with Pink Lady, Macintosh, Jazz, Gala and hundreds of other brands crowding the produce aisles?

Image copyright James Luby
Image caption Prof James Luby says that the expansion of the Cosmic Crisp is "unprecedented"

"What sets apples apart from other fruit is that we associate a name and brand to a particular eating experience," says Prof Evans.

Bradley Rickard, an economics professor at Cornell University in New York state, is optimistic that the Crisp can indeed shake up an apple industry in desperate need of a game-changer.

"If you look at the past 30 years of apple consumption in the US, it's all flat. And the profit margins are thin," says Prof Rickard, who is an expert on the agricultural and food sectors. "The Cosmic Crisp could increase per capita consumption of apples in the US."

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Back in Washington state, West Mathison, boss of Stemilt Growers, is now harvesting his Crisps. He says that one negative about the new variety is that it could divide the apple growing community in the US - those that have switched to it, and those that haven't.

"If farmers are investing in new types of apples backed by effective marketing plans, they're doing fantastic," he says. "But if growers are sticking to legacy brands that consumers are moving away from, then the profit margins are thin and sometimes negative."

However, Prof Evans is excited about the Crisp's commercial launch. So much so that she uses an Apple the company analogy. "I wouldn't say this is like the launch of the first iPhone, but more like the latest iPhone, the latest model."