Project aims to meet UK blueberry demand

Some of the biggest names in the fresh produce industry - including growers, supermarkets and research organisations - have teamed up to lead a five-year research project on blueberries.

The Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI), Tesco, Marks & Spencer, GlaxoSmithKline, Cobrey Farms and Hargreaves Plants are among the consortium members whose shared aim is to better fill the largely unmet demand for British-grown blueberries.

The SCRI's Susan McCallum gave growers an insight into the five-year HortLINK project last month at the institute's Fruit for the Future open day at the SCRI centre in Invergowrie, Scotland.

McCallum, who heads a team of research workers, said: "Fruit consumption in the UK, particularly of berry fruits, is expanding rapidly and consumer demand for blueberries is at record levels, with UK growers unable to meet current demand."

The project - work on which started in September 2009 - has two elements to it to ensure that growers have the best possible varieties available to them in future.

The lab-based part of the project is seeing scientists develop a genetic framework for the fruit. They will be "mapping" the genes of the blueberry to speed up the breeding process so in future, breeders can quickly select those traits prefered by consumers and growers.

Meanwhile, nearly 40 different varieties are being tested on five sites across the UK to find which are best adapted to the climate.

McCallum said: "Imported cultivars have often been found unsuitable for UK conditions so the industry needs to develop disease-resistant, productive cultivars with large, flavoursome fruit that can be easily established in our climate and soils. A genetic framework for future crop improvement is required to develop a thriving sustainable industry."

Factors being examined at the field trials include how the varieties yield, how well the crops can be machine harvested, their fruit quality, growth habit and branch strength, the length and timing of their season and their natural susceptibility to pests and diseases.

Some of the trials are also looking at how well the varieties establish themselves in the soil because the fruit is known for its generally poor root establishment.

The trials are also examining factors such as the fruits' sweetness, sourness and "flavour intensity", as well as their juice yield and vitamin C levels.

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