Apple growers lobby MPs to save the Cox: Cheap imports are taking an increasing bite out of the market for orange pippins. Oliver Gillie reports

ANGRY apple growers set up a mock orchard outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday to draw attention to the plight of the Cox's orange pippin, England's premium apple.

Cheap imports have so reduced profits that many growers say they will go out of business if there is no change.

Prices for Cox apples have not increased over the last 10 years and growers say that current prices are not sufficient to enable them to replant their orchards when the trees begin to age. Growers blame the poor price for Cox's on hidden subsidies to foreign growers and the dumping of apples in Britain.

Only about 30 per cent of apples eaten in Britain are grown here whereas 90 per cent of apples eaten in France are French. The British fruit market is particularly vulnerable to invasion because buying is concentrated in supermarkets. In France much more food is sold by small retailers.

The future of the Cox's orange pippin as a commercial apple is now in question, as well as the jobs of up to 107,000 agricultural workers.

The first Cox's tree was grown in 1825 by Richard Cox, a retired brewer from Bermondsey, from a Ribston pippin. It was highly regarded by Victorian gardeners but was not commercially grown until the 1920s.

Dick Brook, managing director of East Kent Packers, which handle about a quarter of England's Cox production, said: 'Prices returned to UK Cox growers this year have only covered half the cost of production. The UK is the most open market for fruit in the world. Cheap imports of apples, financed by cheap labour in countries like Chile and South Africa, are depressing prices.'

British growers say that supermarkets here are not giving them shelf room in proportion to their market share. They want till receipts in supermarkets to inform consumers what proportion of British goods they are buying - a system used in the Irish Republic and Italy. They are also asking the Government to use EU and Gatt legislation to keep dumped fruit from other countries out of Europe.

Growers quote the findings of the Agriculture Select Committee, which concluded that other EU countries 'have been more generous, more ingenuous or possibly, in some cases, more devious, in using national aids of various kinds to assist producers . . .'

Nigel Bardsley, a Kent grower who lobbied Parliament yesterday, said: 'Ten years ago we were told that we were producing too small a volume. We have put that right. Orchards are now much more efficient, producing 30 per cent more than they did before. We have also invested in promotion. If every person in Britain ate just one more Cox's apple a year the industry will be saved.'

(Photograph omitted)