NZ: Plant & Food Research and the fruit breeding ‘numbers game’ -

NZ: Plant & Food Research and the fruit breeding ‘numbers game’

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NZ: Plant & Food Research and the fruit breeding ‘numbers game’

For a country with a population just shy of 4.5 million people, New Zealand punches above its weight in the agricultural industry. Isolated from traditional markets but closer to emerging economies, its horticultural success has depended not just on a productive and open-minded farming workforce, but on scientists who have strived to create a premium on its produce. At we catch up with the country's Plant & Food Research to discuss what has been achieved and the developments in the pipeline.

When asked about the new innovations at Plant & Food Research, commercial group general manager David Hughes is unsure where to start.

"We could be here an awful long time," he says.

After pointing out the track record of the organization, which includes the development of more than 300 cultivars including Zespri Gold kiwifruit and Jazz apples, he highlights that its modus operandi is more than just releasing new varieties, but tackling the effects of disease, recording genetic taste profiles, researching health benefits and reducing environmental impacts.

"Our aim is to have all our four platforms interlocking - breeding really high quality fruit and vegetables with strong health properties, as well as disease resistance and low water footprints, and we have people working on to grow those in a sustainable way so you have zero chemical residue," he says.

"Lastly you provide marketers with additional benefits over and above the sensory, appearance and shelf life aspects, giving consumers extra reasons to buy those products through understanding the health properties."

With 600 scientists working on these projects, many who have had to put their research on hold to tackle kiwifruit vine-killing disease Psa-V, the organization's breakthroughs do not just come from bright sparks but careful planning. Hughes' colleague and general business manager Gavin Ross sums it up as a 'numbers game'.

"We aim to be able to assemble teams of different disciplines on one problem and one solution, and not many research organizations have got that breadth of capability to pull in," he says.

"Plant breeding is a numbers game mostly and probability is a big thing."

The new raspberry breed

While Plant & Food Research is mostly noted for its kiwifruit and apple developments, Ross says a new raspberry variety is starting to bear fruit after eight years of research and trials.

"We have the new Wakefield variety of raspberry that’s been recently developed and released in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., in an industry that hasn't had a new variety for at least 40 years - Meeker is the standard variety they use in processing raspberries, and the Wakefield is replacing Meeker on many growers' farms," he says.

"It's a processing variety, it has good soluble solids, yields well, it’s good for disease resistance characteristics, machine-harvestable, good features through the IQF(instant quick frozen) system, so it's a standout variety that we've got good confidence around.

"We have a breeding program with partners in Washington State. We're a New Zealand company and proud to be so, but we do have initiatives and operations in other parts of the world where it makes sense to do so - at the moment the area in production is only in the low 100’s of acres, but it’s starting to ramp up now."

Hughes says the first major season of production for Wakefield raspberries was harvested around September.

"We got all the yield data in per acre and those sort of the things, which is key in knowing whether it’s working or not, and we exceed expectations by a significant margin."

The science of understanding taste preferences

When breeding a fruit variety you can always aim for certain characteristics, but the end goal of that is to provide the tastes that will appeal to certain people. This is where the organization's 'numbers game' comes into the fore, with strategic taste development to meet the preferences of target consumers.

"For example if you compare the Jazz apple to the Envy apple, one is crisp and slightly tartier while the other is a crisp and sweeter apple, so we are really catering for the full range with those two apples on the taste spectrum," says Hughes.

"There are regional differences around the world in the percentage of people who prefer tart apple or a fresh apple versus a sweet apple, so the breeding programs try to take that into account.

"We do a reasonable amount of research to understand consumer preferences around the world, and even a bit of research to understand the human genetic makeup that influences taste preference, and if you know that genetic mix around the world, you can start forming predictive models."

He points out the human genome is relatively well documented with data available, but Plant & Food is building on that to create a  more advanced map of sensory perception and taste preferences.

"Flavor is a huge number of chemicals interacting, so we're trying to build a more sophisticated map to understand human preference for flavors around the world and do that on a predictive basis right down to the chemistry of the fruit, which goes back to understanding the genetics of the fruit."

Apples and kiwifruit

He says on this basis the organization has more apple varieties in the pipeline, but can't reveal what they would be like just yet. It's the same story with kiwifruit, with which Plant & Food's are working on some 'quite dramatic innovations'.

"Firstly they're reducing the breeding cycle and they're having quite significant progress - rather than waiting for a tree to get so many years old before it produces fruit, with the vines you can do some pretty clever things to fool the tree into producing fruit when it’s only so tall.

"A lot of development is around extending the season, getting better coverage across the season and quite significant improvements have been seen from some of the kiwifruit - there are also some red kiwifruit that have passed into the next stage of development, but the challenge on red kiwifruit is getting the taste right.

"You can get red kiwifruit, that’s not all that hard, but having them taste great and with a good shelf life is a challenge, so we’re pretty excited about a program that’s coming through there."

Hughes highlights other 'novel' kiwifruit in the pipeline as well, drawing on one of the world's largest germplasms for the fruit.

"They vary quite markedly, they really are well away from the traditional green furry kiwifruit that you would think of.

"The trick is getting some of these novel features combined with shelf life and taste, because some of the most attractive-looking ones taste terrible and vice versa. Some of the best tasting ones don’t look so good, so getting all those aspect into one product is important."

Speeding up the process through GM prototyping

While still not in widespread practice, Hughes says that genetically-modified (GM) prototyping is one tool at researchers' disposal in planning breeding programs.

This does not imply that the fruit produced in the field need necessarily be GM - in fact they are not - but in the lab the scientists can effectively have a drawing board for a long-term breeding strategy.

"What you do is use genetic engineering within a laboratory setting, effectively as a fast prototyping to ask the what if questions - if you're going to wait for nature to go through multiple generations it might take you years to answer the what if questions to know if the result of all those crosses will produce something really great.

"There’s a lot of work you can do around understanding the genetics so that you’re not making crosses based just on looking at the product, but making crosses on really informed knowledge of the genetic makeup of the fruit."

"If the market wants to say GM-free they certainly can, but should the world change we’re prepared to move quite quickly."

How disease tests robustness

Around 24% of New Zealand's kiwifruit orchards are affected by Psa-V, which is the virulent strain of bacterial disease 'Pseudomonas syringae pv actinidiae'. The disease has brought on a strong sense of unity in the national industry, and the players involved have been working around the clock to find a cure, or at least a salve.

"The biggest challenges we’re facing right now is Psa in kiwifruit and so-called 'zebra chip' in potatoes, which are two enormous incursions in New Zealand, recently arrived and they've got our scientists fully occupied," says Hughes.

"You can see the link back to our breeding activity too because once we understand the pest we can actually breed for resistance or tolerance to it - ideally you want to breed breed your crops in an area that’s prone to the disease, and then you naturally weed out those that are not resistant to the disease, just in the breeding process.

"But with a brand new disease obviously that hasn’t happened; one of the first thing it hits is your breeding program, which gets attacked aggressively by the disease, and if you’re really lucky you find you have something late in your program that is tolerant or resistant, and if you're less lucky you have to go back through the breeding process."

He says Psa has affected a large number of people in the organization 'one way or another'.

"You have knock-on effects but in many ways that’s a good thing because an organization like ours needs to be flexible and responsive, and that’s one of the things we would aim to actually design in to our organization."

The 'never-ending' fight against residue and reducing water use

Hughes says an important 'aspirational goal' of the institute is developing residue-free production.

"Every time you’ve got a new pest incursion you’ve got to develop tools to conquer it, which leave ultimately zero residue, so as you can imagine that’s almost a never ending process," he says.

"Every new generation of fruit rests on the shoulders of the fruit before."

Another platform is 'sustainable production systems', under which Plant & Food Research scientist Brent Clothier was recognized as one of New Zealand's most influential people by List Magazine last year.

"That was because of his work on water footprinting. There are a lot of people predicting that water will be the biggest issue for this century, with population growing rapidly still and the availability of fresh drinking water actually shrinking, which is the water available to effectively double the amount of food for more people," says Hughes.

"A number of people are predicting future wars won’t be fought over oil but over water. Brent’s work on being able to model how much water it takes to produce a piece of fruit like this in New Zealand versus any other country in the world has really got a high international profile."

But water is just one part of the group's productive systems modelling, encapsulating a wide range of factors.

"They model whole production systems, the environmental impact of production systems within a regional set of land use, so they’ve done significant work on that (water) and major issues like greenhouse gas.

"We're becoming quite important not just because those issues are so big, but because retailers and consumers are demanding information around it, being able to understand what your impact is, is one of the first steps you can take to reducing that impact."

This ties into another cog in the Plant & Food Research wheel, which is about connecting with marketers and consumers to find and raise knowledge about the myriad ways that fruit can nourish the body and improve health.

"It's about understanding how fruit contributes to wellness and how this could be used by consumer goods companies or the end marketer or product produced from the fruit, to actually increase prices for their products, achieving premiums by making a product more acceptable or novel for consumers.

"We see that as having a multiple benefit, because firstly as its with proprietary varieties so people who have licensed them can get an uplift in demand for that product, and we hope it increases overall demand in that category.

"We think by talking up the health benefits of fruit and vegetables you may just lift that entire category if you’ve got new and interesting things to say about it, and it should do positive if we put a strong consumer message out."

So could we see a few happy freeloaders?

"Yes you will to be honest that wouldn’t bother us at all, because if you boost an entire category's performance that's good for everyone, including ourselves."

For an extended look at Plant & Food's research, take a look at their website.

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