by Courtney Llewellyn

During February’s American Seed Trade Association Innovation in Plant Breeding Virtual Tour, some of the biggest names in the game presented new takes on staple crops. Below, we’ll look at some of the work being undertaken to continually improve these consumer favorites.

Breeding for Balance in Melons

Before any changes are contemplated in plant characteristics, it’s critical to research the market to see what consumers need and desire, according to Sam Bush, head of sales for the Americas region for BASF. People want products that are good for the planet (sustainable), that provide a superior experience (meaning they’re willing to pay more for superior taste) and that are healthy and convenient, Bush said.

“Although our seeds are targeted at the beginning of the value chain, we share the same end user with everyone else in the vegetable value chain,” he said. “We want to make vegetables more enjoyable through taste, structure and look; make vegetables more convenient (easier to buy, prepare and eat); and make healthy eating enjoyable and sustainable.”

This is particularly important in the U.S., as melon consumption has been decreasing steadily since 2011 (down 1.7% per year). Bush noted the top attributes consumer search for are flavor, freshness, price, ripeness and sweetness.

Eben Ogundiwin, Ph.D., research and development technical lead for BASF, said innovative breeding results from expert botanical knowledge and cutting edge technology solutions. “Agriculture is all about balance,” he said. That means finding ways to reduce inputs, increase heat and drought tolerance, widen harvest windows, protect from diseases and pests, increase shelf life and transportability and ultimately provide a better overall experience for consumers. Since melons are a global crop, all these must be taken into account. BASF’s R&D team use trait research and development, cell biology, molecular breeding, data science and quality analytics for their crop development.

“We’re invested heavily in researching all aspects of the consumer experience to understand which traits are valuable and which are not,” explained Matthew DeCeault, consumer and customer chemistry manager for Nunhems (a brand under BASF). “We use information to drive our breeding investments. Our most famous example is the Sweet Spark Cantaloupe (from 2017). It’s a variety with consistent sugar, firmness and flavor. And we’ll continue working with consumers to find the next winner.”

One introduced last year was the yellow Hello Melon. DeCeault noted that since not all consumers like cantaloupes, the aim was to create something different. He added that the yellow-skin melon category has been growing. Their newest item is the Sunpeek sutured melon, which will be around for summer 2021. “We really focus on improvements to flavor – that’s the number one in preference,” he said.

Diversity for Watermelons

Another melon of note is the watermelon, which was first harvested over 5,000 years ago in Egypt. Today, more than 1,200 varieties are grown in 96 countries – and the U.S. grows the most seedless watermelons in the world.

Dean Liere, Syngenta regional portfolio manager, said his company’s goals are disease resistance, quality, yield and enjoyment by consumers. Breeding Trial Specialist Rebecca Wente-Taylor added that they’re also trying to breed varieties that can withstand more extreme weather conditions.

Syngenta’s newest seedless option is Excursion, which Liere said shows high adaptability to seedless growing regions. Powerhouse features a thick rind and high sugar content, and they’ve been trialing it for past three years. (Liere noted it performs really well in Indiana and North Carolina.) Sweet Dawn is their earliest maturing variety – ready after 74 days. Liere recommended checking out All-America Selections to see other varieties that have done well.

“We rely on natural genetic diversity to create new varieties,” Liere said. “We use genetic and statistical tools to bring new varieties to the market faster.”

A Collaborative Approach to Peppers

Bayer Crop Science has a major ace in the hole: Their global germplasm library means they can provide solutions to problems around the world. They test peppers in 31 countries at more than 1,000 locations. They also test for resistance to 15 different diseases and pests.

J.D. Rossouw, the head of vegetable R&D at Bayer Crop Science, said the total timespan to develop a new breed can be eight to 15 years, so they’ve been working on shortening that window. “Our big request is ship to snackable size, low seed or no seed peppers,” he added. “We want to make them fun and exciting for kids to eat.”

However, peppers are very different from melons when it comes to taste preferences. Mourad Abdennadher, head of Americas vegetable breeding and testing for Bayer, said they focus on different traits: heat, taste, pungency, shape, firmness, the holding capacity of seed and the synchronization of maturity. “We see the consumer is becoming more global but they do have different appreciation for tastes,” he noted. “Selection for heat can be based on consumer panels, and most recently we started using an analytical method for determining the preferred level of pungency (spice and heat). It is subjective based on what different populations like. What the consumer wants is where we start.”

The next time you open a seed catalogue or consider expanding your produce selection, it may be worth it to ask your customers what they’d like first – just like the companies mentioned above.