We’ve heard lots of news about extreme weather events in the summer of 2023. The National Hurricane Center issued its first ever tropical storm watch for parts of southern California, a Category 3 hurricane caused major damage in Florida’s Big Bend region, Canada’s seemingly endless wildfires introduced millions of people across North America to the health hazards of wildfire smoke, catastrophic flooding struck several communities, and moderate to exceptional drought now covers 31.7% of the US, including Puerto Rico. The lesser told story, however, is how these devastating storms have affected crop varieties. Climate pollution is widely considered to be a major threat to future food security, and the varieties we savor today may not be the ones we eat in the decades to come.
Crop improvement through innovative breeding methods includes efficient agronomic innovations in microbiome applications, exploiting natural variations in underutilized crops, and developing climate resilient superior genotypes to cope with the future challenges of global food security. Recently the New York Times published an article about scientists who are experimenting with methods to adapt crops to developing environmental factors, support improved crop management, and inform policy interventions on global food production. It’s worthy of our CleanTechnica audience, so here’s an synthesis of their most promising new varieties that are leading the way to what will become a food system transformation.
Cherries that get their chill: Cherry trees need at least a month’s worth of accumulated hours of temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees. A winter that is too warm leads to unreliable blossoming and often a failed crop. One solution is the heart-shaped Cheery Cupid from International Fruit Genetics, which was recently acquired by Bloom Fresh International, one of the world’s largest premium fruit breeding companies. The new cherries need only about one-third the usual amount of cold weather.
Cauliflower with a sun-blocking mask: In what is a time consuming activity, farmers bind the large outer leaves together over and around maturing cauliflower heads to prevent them from yellowing or browning. Without it, a bitter flavor due to an overabundance of sun exposure would result, and these very light sensitive plants turn spotty and beige and are unappealing to consumers. As an alternative, plant breeders at Syngenta developed the Destinica true-white cauliflower series that doesn’t get sunburned. The series offers more modifications in growing cycles in order to meet specific market requirements. It is also less impactful on soil because fewer workers are required to walk on the fields.
Melons that handle drought better: Researchers at Texas A&M’s Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center, with funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, have released 2 new melons — the Supermelon and the Flavorific — whose deeper root systems have been bred to handle drought by pulling more water from the soil. The goal of these breeding efforts was to combine traits that optimize disease resistance and yield and enhance retail and sensory quality parameters.This was accomplished by selecting for healthy vines and vigorous root systems in disease prone environments. Early reports are quite positive: the melons are sweet with dense flesh.
Blackberries on thorn-free vines: In a lab in Durham, NC, scientists at Pairwise are using the gene-editing technology called CRISPR — short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. They say it is a “powerful and precise genome editing tool discovered as a natural method to combat viruses” and is used in this application to produce seedless blackberries that grow on compact, thorn-free vines. These vines require less land, water, and fertilizer. The new bushes also will make picking the fruit easier on people who work in the fields.
Carrots with more salt tolerance: Trying to breed a carrot whose seeds can germinate even when the soil is salty, hot, and dry is a challenge. That’s what Phil Simon, a horticulture professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has spent more than a decade trying to do. In a drought, there’s not enough moisture to dilute mineral salts in groundwater. And carrots don’t tolerate salinity well, especially at germination and in the immediate weeks ahead to harvesting. The optimum soil for carrots is a loose soil rich in organic matter, free of debris, and either loamy or sandy. One idea is to cross sweet, orange commercial carrots with wild ones that can handle heat; it could take another 10 or 15 years to perfect. Also, scientists from the University of Wisconsin assessed diverse carrots’ germplasm’s response to salinity stress and identified a salt-tolerant carrot germplasm that may be used by breeders.
Potatoes that can stand a bit of heat: Potatoes prefer a consistent, moderate water supply and cool weather. Researchers at the University of Maine, with funding from the Department of Agriculture and the US potato industry, are looking to South America and to heat-tolerant varieties in the US South for genetic traits that can help spuds survive excessive heat and floods. They’re also exploring how to battle new waves of pests and disease that come with hotter, wetter growing conditions.
Avocados with a smaller footprint: A new, more environmentally friendly avocado which tasters have described as nutty, smooth, and perhaps a bit sweeter than a Hass, was developed by breeders at the University of California, Riverside, which houses one of the world’s largest collections of avocado genetic material, in partnership with the European agricultural company Eurosemillas SA. The new trees are slender, shorter, and have a smaller footprint. High density plants, which use less water, are a big advantage for a fruit like avocados that requires extensive irrigation. The new varieties also produce more fruit on less land.
Apples that like it hot: What’s the ideal climate resilient apple? It grows well with a lot of sunlight and in heat. The Cosmic Crisp is such an apple, and it now grows on 21 million trees in Washington State, having been brought to market by Kate Evans, a horticulturist, fruit breeder, and professor at Washington State University. But other new apple varieties that can handle even more heat are needed, too. New Zealand-based VentureFruit has unveiled Tutti, the world’s first branded apple variety bred specifically for production in hot climates. Twenty years in the making, Tutti’s commercial launch at Fruit Logistica in Berlin follows 5 years of extensive research and production trials under the variety name HOT84A1.
We have so much to learn about the food that sustains us here in the Anthropocene Epoch — this most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems. If you haven’t already read it, “Food in the Anthropocene: Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems” considers current food production and consumption trends in terms of not only planet-warming emissions but also cropland and freshwater use, nitrogen and phosphorus cycling, and species extinction.
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