The Changes in the Breeding of Produce

The Changes in the Breeding of Produce

July 31, 2013
TrendsRetail Industry Insights

It’s summer. Picnics abound with consumers eating fruits and vegetables in the heat. The quality of what customers are finding in the supermarkets, though, can be disappointing as producers (in a desire to not disappoint with an absence of any particular fruit or veggie) are selling non-seasonal varieties. The end product is not one that tastes particularly great casting a pall on the industry’s capabilities to please. This is why the breeding and research going into vegetables is beneficial to not only better taste, but greater, fresher variety all season long and increased consumer satisfaction. Not to mention that there can be a more beneficial nutritional density to the produce. Scientists are changing the way many popular vegetables are bred and used, developing new seeds and upping the vitamin content of any given vegetable. 

Better taste:

In a speech at The American Trade Association’s 51st Vegetable and Flower Seed Conference, Ted Campbell, Florida Strawberry Growers Association executive director shared that, “Priorities for producers include productivity, optimum timing of harvest, disease resistance, using fewer inputs and a better return on investment. Priorities for consumers include flavor, appearance, taste, nutritional value, shelf life and year-round availability. As you can see, it is difficult for plant breeders to please both the producer and consumer. Many fruits have an early maturing variety, which means that producers would typically get a premium for these plants, so there is an incentive there. However, these varieties typically have less flavor and color. Basically, the farmer makes more money selling a product that disappoints the consumer.”

David Stark, Vice President, Consumer Benefits and Chain Management, Monsanto, speaks of the years many organizations and governments around the world have spent tens of millions of dollars promoting fruit and vegetable consumption as a way to improve health. Yet during that time fruit and vegetable consumption has continued to decline on a per capita basis. “Part of the problem may be education, cost and availability, but one obvious factor is that many other food choices tend to taste better,” says David. “The flavor challenge for the produce industry has been compounded over the last several decades as the industry shifted more and more to varieties that yield well, look good, can be shipped great distances and have long shelf life. While certainly not intentional, flavor and aroma were not in the equation, and for many products eating quality has suffered.”

“Personally, living in the Midwest, I tire of eating crops like tomatoes and melons that have no taste for much of the year. It is also unacceptable that any of these tasteless products come from our seeds. So several years ago Monsanto decided that flavor and eating quality must be a centerpiece of our produce R&D efforts along with attributes including yield, appearance and shelf life. Being a scientist, I wanted flavor to be measurable, predictable and reproducible, not an accident. Therefore we brought on board new expertise and capabilities around flavor and sensory perception, and this investment is beginning to pay off. Our pipeline of truly great tasting melons and tomatoes is exciting and beginning to reach the marketplace, and more is yet to come.” Interview with Chow-Ming Lee, Global Consumer Sensory Lead, Monsanto Company, Vegetable Seeds Division 

Greater Variety:

Veggies and fruits from around the world can be produced locally to aid in the fight against pests as well as create a new kind of food. According to geneticist Amnon Levi, in his work at ARS’s U.S. Vegetable Laboratory, “Watermelon in the United States has a narrow genetic base. This is due mainly to continuous selection for desired fruit quality. As a result, cultivated varieties are susceptible to many diseases and pests.” He explains the solution may lie in wild forms of watermelon collected throughout the world. “The idea is to exploit the genes of the wild types to improve pest resistance in cultivated watermelon.”

Health Benefits:

Given the spotlight on food, health and nutrition on both federal and state government levels, and the huge problem of childhood obesity in America, there’s an increased demand down the food chain to breed fruit and vegetables that can replace less healthy snacks of choice such as chips and candy bars. This can be accomplished with a variety of options with a sweet taste. It’s Complicated: Commentary by Harriet Hentges, Food Retail Sustainability Expert

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Childhood Obesity Facts,“Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in Adolescents in the past thirty years.” Kaiser Permanente executed a 2013 Childhood Obesity Prevention Surveyfinding that 90% of Americans believe that K-12 schools should take a stronger stance in fighting obesity by boosting fruits and vegetables, with 78% holding food and beverage companies accountable. Close behind at 74% are food retailers.

Retaining Nutrient Density:

Nutrients in fruits and vegetables available in the United States and the United Kingdom are declining. Your mother's broccoli isn’t acceptable anymore as all the modern techniques and technology are put to the challenge to meet nutritional standards. The journal Hort Scienceoutlines the three causes to be: 1) early studies of fertilization found inverse relationships between crop yield and mineral concentrations—the widely cited “dilution effect” 2) three recent studies of historical food composition data found apparent median declines of five percent to 40% or more in some minerals in groups of vegetables and perhaps fruits; one study also evaluated vitamins and protein with similar results , and 3) recent side-by-side plantings of low- and high-yield cultivars of broccoli and grains found consistently negative correlations between yield and concentrations of minerals and protein, a newly recognized genetic dilution effect. 

Cost and Availability: 

It is key that the new breeds of produce are not only cost effective, but available to the mass population. Beneforte Broccoli, a product of ten years of cross-pollination and selection, “naturally contains two to three times the glucoraphanin as a serving of other leading commercial varieties of broccoli.” This broccoli, made here in California in the foggy Santa Maria Valley, can’t withstand the four to five day travel to the East Coast where it is then subject to a humidity that reduces its freshness. An article in the New York Times outlines how Thomas Bjorkman, a plant scientist at Cornell, wants to change that by creating a broccoli that can thrive in “hot steamy summers and is inexpensive enough to grow in large volumes.”

Connection of Science with Food:

“Civilization rests on people’s ability to modify plants to make them more suitable as food, feed and fiber plants and all of these modifications are genetic.” (Excerpt from the Statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science). A paper by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states, “Of the approximately 30,000 edible plants identified, only 7,000 have been used for human food consumption. Three crops (wheat, rice, and maize) provide more than half of the global plant-derived energy intake, and 30 crops provide 95% of caloric energy and/or protein. An integrated management approach is required to broaden crop diversity and promote nutrition security.”