Fine-tuning Chile's maqui berry potential

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Fine-tuning Chile's maqui berry potential

To boost the Chilean maqui berry supply, the Chile Foundation has launched a special program to study the fruit's development, management and genetic make-up. The group's food productive standards manager Flavio Araya spoke with about the project's development and the implications it will have for local producers.

The maqui is a tree native to Chile found in subantarctic forests between the IV (Coquimbo) and X (Los Lagos) regions. The tree's purplish-black  berries have traditionally been used as a dye for their high level of anthocyanin.

The fruit also has a high level of antioxidants, with an ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) of 19,850, compared to blueberries' level of 8,756.

Used by the Mapuche to cure various ailments, the species also has potential to supply material for the nutrition, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.

Araya said the project to better understand this versatile fruit began in 2007 with the help of the Universidad de Talca.

The team noticed a trend among comsumers toward foods with high antioxident content, a key characteristic of maqui berries. With this in mind, they decided to tackle the maqui supply problem and domesticize the fruit.

"In 2007, we did a clone screening with Universidad de Talca viewing different wild varieties to see which had better content in terms of anthocyanins and antioxidents," Araya said.

"We got plants that we took to Talca and started to observe them. We had plants that came from regions VI and X and in August 2009, we decided to do the first clone field in Chile."

About 60 clones were placed in the experimental station of the research center where study began on the plant's behavior and the best varieties to reduce variability.

Over the years, with the added collaboration of Bayas del Sur, Surfrut and local farmers, they presented a proposal to the Ministry of Education's scientific development department. They wanted to take the clones, now down to 50, to five fields in Curicó, Talca, Chillán, Valdivia and Osorno.

Cultivation with its own characteristics

Current maqui plantations in Chile are wild and their harvest damages native forests, Araya said.

"It's a process where you intervene in the native forest because you're cutting branches to cut the fruit and that branch won't come back next year," he said, explaining why harvests need to be made more sustainable and controlled.

The expert explained that the fruit does have benefits, however. With the added possibilities of juices, extracts and dehydration, the fruit has potential benefits for diseases such as diabetes.

"Clinical studies have been done with patients to show that the extracts, with characteristics like maqui berries, have results that help combat or improve diabetes," he said.

Studies have also been done with Alzheimer's disease.

"So this provoked the topic that this fruit isn't only about good nutrition with juices, but it also opens an array of heavier health and medicinal topics. But it's all about how we can supply it," he said.

"This project seeks to answer a series of questions about which clones are best and how we can manage them. We hope to have them identified in no more than five years."

Araya expressed the need to test the berries in more enviroments to see how it does in different conditions so that it can be developed in a wider range of places and dates. Much is still unknown about the fruit, such as how it is pruned, the ideal planting density and adequate management, all of which is being studied by the foundation project.

"The risk of not knowing is that if I pursue maqui production, in four or five years, I might have a really nice display of wood and leaves with very little fruit.

"When we give this to farmers in five more years, we want to tell them, 'these are the four or five maqui varieties with the best bang, they form bunches and they don't produce anything else," he said.

Within the technical aspects, they are looking for clones where the fruit develops in bunches rather than individually to encourage the crop.

Araya said that there is diversity in how maqui berries form, with some varieties forming creeping vines, others that form like cherries and even others that form in bushes.

"We have to look for the easiest types to manage for farmers. Maquis are not similar in terms of structure.

"Maqui berries are not going to be like blueberries. They are not going to be a fresh export product. They will be exported as juice concentrate or dehydrated. Along those lines, demand can shoot up and they can be used as an ingredient."

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