Plant breeders, by nature, are persistent people. It may take them years or even decades to perfect a new variety of fruit or vegetable that tastes better, grows faster or stays fresh longer.
But their work has taken on new demands in the face of an increasingly volatile climate. Recent floods left more than a third of California’s table grapes rotting on the vine. The sun is very bright burning apple crops. Pests that farmers never worry about are marching through the lettuce fields.
Breeding new crops that can thrive under these attacks is a long game. Solutions are likely to come from a range of research fields ranging from molecular gene-editing technology to mining. extensive global collection of seeds preserved for centuries.
And, of course, fresh fruits and vegetables have to be delicious. “You can use these technical solutions to find climate solutions, but it won’t be useful if it’s not what people want to eat,” said Michael Kantaran associate professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa who studies wild relatives of existing crops.
Some of these new varieties are already in grocery stores, while others are still on the drawing board. Here’s a quick look at some of the most promising.
To bear fruit, cherry trees need what growers call chill hours: at least a month’s worth of accumulated temperature hours between 32 and 45 degrees. A winter that is too warm leads to poor flowering and sometimes no crop.
It becomes more difficult for cherry trees in some regions to get enough chilling time. One solution is the heart-shaped Cheery Cupid from International Fruit Geneticswhich was recently acquired by Bloom Fresh International. (The scientists behind it have grown those too famous grape like cotton candy.) These new cherries require only about one-third the usual amount of cold weather. “What we’re trying to do is make them more tolerant in the summer to withstand this ridiculous heat, but they also have to survive the warmer winters,” said Chris Owens, the leading plant breeder for the company.
Cupids, which are juicy and sweeter than some other cherries, are one of the few new “low chill” varieties sold to growers under the Cheery label. They should be available in the Southern Hemisphere this fall, and later in North American markets.
Cauliflower with Sunscreen
When a cauliflower is ripe, its green leaves open and expose the white head, called the curd. That curd is extremely sensitive to sunlight — too much, and it can become mottled and beige, which means it won’t sell at the grocery store.
To avoid this, farmers fold the leaves back over the curd by hand about two weeks before harvest, a costly and time-consuming practice. Alternatively, plant breeders have developed the Destinica true-white cauliflower, which is now a regular in supermarkets. In essence, it does not burn in the sun. And it’s easier on the land because there are fewer workers walking the fields.
The Destination is one of a line of climate-friendly cauliflower developed by Syngenta Vegetable Seeds, part of the Swiss-based global agricultural company Syngenta. Farmers also grow weather-resistant white cabbage, which requires less nitrogen fertilizer and can thrive in long dry periods. It sits a little lower in the field than other cabbages, which makes harvesting easier.
Melons That Drink Less
In 2011, after Colorado cantaloupes infected with listeria killed 33 people, researchers at Texas A&M’s Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center began trying to breed safer melons. But in the last decade, helping melons survive climate change has also become tough, said Bhimu Patil, the center’s director.
To that end, the university, with funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, released two new melons — the Supermelon and the Flavorific — that deeper root systems are grown to handle drought by pulling more water from the soil. Tasters report that the melons are sweet, dense, and fresh from the farmers.
In a lab in Durham, NC, scientists at Pairwise is using a gene-editing technology called CRISPR to speed up work that can take traditional breeders decades. (Gene editing is different from genetic modification, which involves taking DNA from one species and planting it in another.) By dialing up some traits and erasing others, researchers hopes to more quickly develop crops that will grow better in extreme climates. The problem is that an apple, for example, may have 57,000 genes. Discovering which, in which combination, can create a bountiful, tasty crop that can withstand bad weather is just as difficult.
The researchers, who are also collaborating with the German chemical giant Bayer, has so far managed to remove the gene that gives mustard greens their wasabi-like heat. The greens will go into a healthy salad mix that will hit grocery stores early next year under the Conscious Greens label. This will be the first food developed using CRISPR technology to be sold in stores.
The next breakthrough, researchers hope, will be seedless blackberries that grow on dense, thornless vines and require less soil, water and fertilizer. The new bushes will also make it easier for people working in the fields to pick fruit. Then? “We are looking at pitless cherries,” said Tom Adams the chief executive and co-founder of Pairwise.
Carrots That Hold Salt
Phil Simon, a professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has spent more than a decade trying to breed a carrot whose seeds can grow even when the soil is salty, hot and dry. In the dry season, there is not enough moisture to dissolve the mineral salts in the ground water. And carrots do not tolerate salinity well, especially when the seeds are just starting and when they are a week or two before harvest.
One idea is to cross sweet, orange commercial carrots with heat-tolerant wild carrots, like a white carrot which was found by Dr. Simon growing along the road in Turkey, where the temperature can climb into the triple digits. But, he said, the marriage may take another 10 or 15 years to perfect.
If it does, it wouldn’t be the first carrot designed for sustainability in a changing climate. In 2003, the Eskimoa blunt-ended Nantes carrot with a small carbon footprint, has been developed to grow well in the very cold winters of Northern Europe.
Potatoes That Don’t Cook
Potatoes like constant, moderate water supply and prefer cool weather, but the climate is changing so fast that a prominent Scottish plant researcher recently warned that the potato industry is facing a “existential threat.”
to fight, researchers at the University of Mainewith funding from the US Department of Agriculture and the potato industry, is searching South America, where potato cultivation began around 8,000 BC, and heat-tolerant varieties in the American South for genetic traits that could help in spuds that survive extreme heat and floods. .
They are also discovering how to fight new waves of pests and diseases that come with warmer, wetter growing conditions. One strategy being studied in other labs is breeding plants with hairier leaves, which make it harder for insects to move into crops.
It will take at least five or six years before the climate-resistant, russet or sweet potatoes are ready for farmers. Greg Portera professor of crop ecology and management.
Avocados with Less Water
The mighty Hass avocado dominates the American guacamole bowl, but in some years the Luna UCR, a new, more environmentally friendly avocado which has been in the making for 50 years, can be a adversary.
Luna, described by tasters as nutty, smooth and perhaps a bit sweeter than a Hass, was developed by breeders in University of California, Riversidewhich contains one of the world’s largest collections of avocado genetic material, in collaboration with European agricultural companies Eurosemillas SA
New trees are thinner, shorter and have a smaller footprint. they use less water, a great advantage for a fruit that requires extensive irrigation. They also produce more fruit in less land. “Another thing people don’t think about is labor costs,” said Eric Focht, a staff research associate who helped develop Luna. “When you have to harvest these big trees, it takes longer and it’s not safe.”
Apples That Don’t Burn
Breeding a successful new apple takes time, he said Kate Evans, a horticulturist, fruit breeder and professor at Washington State University. “Twenty years is typical.” That’s one reason Cosmic Crisp, a climate-minded apple developed to grow well with plenty of sunlight, was celebrated when he helped bring it to market in 2019. A good performer in the heat, it now grows on 21 million trees in Washington State.
But it was built when the effects of climate change were less visible. Dr. Evans and other breeders intensified their research on new apple varieties that could hold more heat.
A promising newcomer is the Tutti, a light, crisp red apple tested across Europe. A New Zealand company developed it to help Spanish farmers struggling in warmer temperatures. Introduced at a trade show in February, Tutti is the first branded apple variety developed specifically for production in hot climates.