Innovation related to variety in fruits and vegetables: a gateway to the future. An essential present

By Elena Fernández Guiral, Agrifood journalist

The field of research and development is essential when marketing varieties of fruits and vegetables, as innovation related to variety is the guarantee of success and survival in a complex market.

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According to the National Association of Vegetable Producers (Anove) the horticultural sector is a fundamental part of the agricultural sector, with an annual value close to €7 billion and which has made Spain the world’s leading exporter. 

With improvements in vegetables, we have fruit and vegetables with more flavour, with colours that are increasingly more appetising, more resistant and attractive and which mature as late as possible and are able to supply the market throughout the year. The ideal variety also adapts to the greatest possible extent to the needs of producers and the cultivation area. Therefore, breeders and farmers need to work closely to achieve the best results.

Ten years is the average time it takes to research and the put a new variety of vegetable or fruit on the market of, according to Anove. Regarding the vegetable market, there are 34 R&D centres in Spain. The percentage of turnover invested in research is 16%. Even more important is the percentage of jobs dedicated to this work, 52% of the workforce.

It is also important to highlight the role of plant improvement and varietal innovations in sustainability. Thanks to plant improvement, the annual average CO2 emissions in the last 15 years has been reduced by 160 million tons, double the amount proposed for 2020 and only 6% from the target for 2030, according to data from this association. And on the other hand, plant improvement and varietal innovations have allowed European farmers to save 54 billion cubic meters of water since 2000. This would be equivalent to 22 million Olympic swimming pools.

Public research

Both private and public entities are working to ensure that Spain continues to be one of the sector’s global players. In the public sphere, the work of entities such as the Valencian Institute for Agrarian Research (IVIA) is important, since it works to extend the citrus season in food aisles from October to March and offer alternatives every ten or twelve years. Its work is marketed by several companies in the sector. The star crop of the sector continues to be the Clémentine de Nules, the most sought after between November and December. The Clémentine de Nules is an intense orange variety, very tasty, seedless and easily peeled.

Manuel Talón, director of its genomics centre, has been working on it for two decades. “We have generated around 10,000 new lines of clementines over the years and from them we have selected the two most interesting, which can already be obtained in nurseries. Both are derived from the Clémentine de Nules. The Nero comes in in mid-October and the Neufina in January”, he explains.

Indeed, Talon’s team has recently published an article in Nature about the citrus fruits’ family tree Genomics of the origin and evolution of Citrus. Its author confirms that “it is one of the few that Nature has published to date with these characteristics. We are very proud”. This study, which tracks and explains the ancestral origin of these crops, will be very useful in continuing the work on these crops’ varietal improvement. “In years gone by, a farmer chose a piece of fruit by its colour or by its taste. Today we can’t wait six or seven years to sow and wait for it to grow.” Thanks to biotechnology and the use of gene mutation through radiation, it is possible to know within a few weeks if a plant contains the DNA fragment that will give it the perfect characteristics. And this is what they are working on.

 

Innovative companies

One of the most innovative companies in this regard is the Citrus Food Group, one of Mercadona supermarket’s main fruit and vegetable suppliers. In 2016, the construction of its Agronomic Innovation Centre (CIAM) started in Monserrat (Valencia), in collaboration with the University of Wageningen (Holland) and the University of Valladolid.

In its 12,000 m² greenhouse and its 160,000 m² agricultural area, research is carried out on more efficient and sustainable farming methods and processes, especially for baby leaf lettuces and microgreens, following market trends and consumer needs.

CIAM works to improve the sowing, germination and cultivation phases, depending on the type of seed and the variety. The facilities, which can house about 10 million plants, are highly automated and have a remote-control system for aspects such as overhead and side opening, heating and fertirrigation.

This system and the type of irrigation, an aerial mobile tank, manage to save 60% of water compared to the amount used to produce an open field crop. The use of these fertilisers is also optimised, since the exact amount needed by the plant is provided without contaminating the soil. Currently, trials are being carried out with baby leaf lettuces of the red Batavia, verda Batavia and Lollo Rosso varieties.

Among the most innovative projects worth highlighting is the construction of a closed hydroponic cultivation system for leaf crops, which includes mechanisms that allow practically 100% of the water to be reused and it does not contaminate the soil.

It is an R&D+I project funded by the Centre for Industrial Technological Development (CDTI) for 2017-2019 and involves what is called a third-generation crop, where 100% of the conditions are controlled.

 

New flavours, textures and colours: the microgreens

Microgreens are among the most prominent new products that CIAM is developing. These are the first shoots of vegetables that contain a high concentration of nutritional properties, which are recently gaining visibility in national and international cuisine for their distinctive smell, taste and colour.

Current trials with microgreens focus on varieties of broccoli, mustard, radish and kale. The objective is to market the live product, without cutting or processing, in a container that facilitates consumption and a substrate that maintains the moisture and freshness of the vegetable. A product ready to be cut and consumed. Under the brand Sun & Vegs, it is defined as “the essence of the Mediterranean in miniature”.

 

The Foodture project of Semillas Fitó

Another of the most innovative concepts which companies are developing in Spain is the Foodture project, developed by Fitó seeds, which was presented last February as part of the Fruit Logistica Fair in Berlin. Its objective is to satisfy new consumer needs by responding to their demands for quality, health, new tastes and formats.

To this end, a transversal team has been created which brings together specialists in different areas of the company to promote the development and market launch of new concepts of horticultural varieties aimed at different types of consumers: singles, children, elderly people, lovers of new trends…

Thus, the Fitó’s main investment has been focused on tomatoes. It has presented three novelties: two already known as Monterrosa and Essentia, and a new variety called Finngerino, which is an elongated cocktail tomato designed to dip in sauce as a healthy appetizer. Monterrosa is already well known in the countryside of Almeria, as it is a pink tomato with a great flavour.

As for other crops, the Waikiki melon is very special. It is a white melon with orange flesh and a delicate flavour and Almería SmartQ cucumbers, a concept that encompasses the quality and resistance of a prominent product from the fields of Almeria.

Tom Lombaerts is Produce Chain Manager at Semillas Fitó. His job is to put the different elements of the market chain into contact with each other: partners, farmers, suppliers and supermarkets that market their products on the Spanish and European markets. To this end, he manages a constant, vital flow of information. On the one hand, because consumer tastes are increasingly important and consumers increasingly demanding, and on the other because farmers do not always have access to this information and can therefore adapt their production process.

Interestingly, the Foodture concept is not new: “We tried to do it 10 years ago, but it was too early”, he says. Now is the time, and specialisation is what we need in order to reach medium-sized companies so that we become essential in specific sectors of the market”, he says.

Incidentally, Lombaerts explains that Spanish consumers are the most demanding in Europe, especially regarding tomatoes, one of our favourite and most common products. “It is important to adapt each variety not only to the climatic characteristics and those of the land in each area, but also to the differences in tastes of the consumer”, he says. “In southern Spain, they like crispier, acidic tomatoes. In the North, they prefer them more balanced with a thinner skin and softer texture. In general terms, of course.”

Still, most of the R&D of Semillas Fitó starts mainly with finding more stable, profitable and productive varieties. However, in recent years this second line of specialities has appeared, aimed at a better aware and involved consumer who is willing to pay a premium for a very special product.