How to Grow Better Fruit [Opinion]

How to Grow Better Fruit [Opinion]

Playing a little word association here: “Government Research Project.” My first thought: “Waste of Money.”

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Sure, that’s probably unfair, but the fact that it’s my immediate reaction may indicate a lot of you feel the same way. Look at the election of President Trump. His call for a rollback of government regulations resonated like a sonic boom.

But all government research projects are not alike. Take RosBREED, for example. It’s a multi-state project dedicated to the genetic improvement of rosaceous crops — roses, yes, but a lot more progress has been made on such fruits as apples.

Besides researchers from around the country, there are advisors to keep the project grounded, including Bob Gix of Blue Star Growers, Cashmere, WA; Chalmers Carr of Titan Peach Farms, Ridge Spring, SC; and myself.

RosBREED, which is funded through the USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative, is making headway. I know because of all the green. That’s the color employed on the progress charts toward the use of DNA tests indicating successful completion.

For example, the chart showing DNA tests are in use for maturity dates and fruit quality traits is almost completely green for apples, peaches, strawberries, and sweet cherries. Such DNA tests are valuable because they save a lot of green — as in money. Take apples, for instance.

In the past several years, nearly all new apples start with ‘Honeycrisp.’ Everyone wants that crunch because it’s the top trait desired by consumers. RosBREED Project Director Amy Iezzoni of Michigan State University says if the apple industry wants a particular trait, they can ask Jim Luby — the “Godfather” of the University of Minnesota game-changing variety — to instill those qualities.

“[RosBREED] allows you to design crosses that have [or don’t have] color, scab, bitter pit, juiciness, acidity, and so forth. Jim knows what parents in his program will provide those desirable characteristics,” she says. “You can do it because it’s affordable.”

Iezzoni says it’s astounding how the cost of DNA testing is dropping. She says RosBREED is “like ‘23 and Me’ for apples. Fruit breeding has more in common with human genetics than, say, soybeans.”

Luby has been doing marker-assisted seedling selection for the past four years. In 2017, 2,206 seedlings were tested, 1,061 culled. The cost per culled seedling: $3.93. The cost to grow those trees out is about $40, so Luby says he’s saved about $35 per seedling.

RosBREED continues to be funded, but it was cut 7% in both 2017 and for 2018. Iezzoni says they have to apply for funding each year, submitting the request in June. They’ll find out whether the project will continue by Sept. 1.

I urge you to voice your support — or drop an email to me or your elected representative — for this worthy effort. Iezzoni says more discoveries are just around the corner.

“Finding traits can be like finding a needle in a haystack,” she says, “but thanks to RosBREED, the needle is neon.”

People get a lot more for the money, because researchers from all around the country are working together. Synergy is a beautiful thing, and we’ll need it to compete globally.

Countries who fail to invest in R&D are going be left behind. “Discoveries are going to be made around the world,” says Iezzoni. “It’s important for U.S. breeders to remain competitive on the world stage.”