Research and development - Focus on the consumer

Placing the consumer first should be horticultural science's key priority, Professor Geoff Dixon maintains

Image: Geoff Dixon
Image: Geoff Dixon

At the Symposium on Horticulture in Europe (SHE), the clear message to the assembled scientists in Angers was: "Consumers are your priority." Driving up product quality, conserving resources — especially water — and gaining cost-efficiency through science and technology are what make plant-based businesses successful with their customers. Alongside that, the handling and growing of their own plants are clear ambitions for urban consumers and fulfilling those desires is also our business.

Centred in the garden of France, Angers was an ideal meeting place for SHE’s 500 participating scientists drawn from across Europe and more widely. Unashamedly proud of its science-based horticultural industries, Angers and the surrounding Loire Valley thrive economically and socially on plant-based businesses. Here 35,000 jobs come directly from horticulture. The press, politicians and public understand "horticulture". Driving co-ordination is "Vegepolys", the regional development agency that collaborates with 22 similar bodies across Europe as well as the EU commissions in Brussels.

Quality in the supply chain

Growers, supermarket buyers and retail customers think differently about quality, said Pol Tijskens from Wageningen University, Holland. That produces compromises between yield, appearance and taste when what consumers really want is all three plus innovation and novelty.

Joining that theme, Abate Kassa from Munich, Germany, used the world’s food and beverage industry as an example of innovation that in three years has produced 400,000 new products. Add to innovation good price-performance ratios, friendly and available store staff and a highly attractive atmosphere. That delivers customer satisfaction, said his colleague Johanna Schöps.

Studies show that Britain’s supermarket shoppers are developing affection for home production, according to Swedish economist Lena Eklund. Two-thirds of our population now actively seek British foodstuffs, she said. In Britain, slogans such as "just been picked", "tastes better", "better diet" and "better for the planet" score highly among consumers. Home producers are favoured by retail customers. But the supermarkets are still the gatekeepers in the supply chain and the producers are largely invisible. Plant-based businesses must vastly improve their communication, she stated.

Apples are a major world commodity and offer opportunities for benchmarking competitiveness across regions of production, said German economists Walter Dirksmeyer and Kathrin Strohn. They are gathering monetary and physical input and output farm data for modelling annually across France, Germany, Italy, China, Chile, the USA and South Africa. Benchmarks for costs of production, cash flows, productivity and gross margins will result.

Image is everything, as shown by French researchers. Viewing pictures of the apple Granny Smith while eating Golden Delicious increased its sour taste and conversely looking at Golden Delicious reduced Granny Smith’s actual sourness. Red flesh colour generated great expectations of appealing flavour and texture for consumers.

Flavour relies heavily on the timing of harvests, especially in soft fruits. Swiss work shows that strawberry flavour fluctuates widely depending on when fruit is picked. Slower-developing and longer-ripening fruit accumulates more anthocyanins with better appearance and flavour. Fruit exposed to darkness (night) and low temperatures for four hours before harvest are the firmest, found Louise Abayomi from Britain’s Natural Resources Institute, and those given long light periods and high temperatures produce the least firm fruit.

Horticulture’s green image is a valuable asset. German garden centre shoppers will pay 20-30 euro cents more for plants grown in biodegradable pots. Consumers want evidence from the industry that it cares about environmental impact and that is a big factor in retaining price elasticity.

Conserving water

Consumers know water is precious and in short supply, and want evidence of its conservation. The science used will vary depending on the crop and location. Professor Bill Davies of Lancaster University leads the way in understanding how water supplied to perennial crops may be conserved. In Mediterranean zones, water can be captured and stored in autumn and winter — deep loamy soils, for example, can hold 2,000cu m ha-1, which is up to 40 per cent of annual orchard need.

Reducing tree size, maximising exposed leaves and minimising shading by summer pruning improve the quality and taste of fruit and conserve water, showed Cristos Xilyannis from Italy. But as Spanish researcher José Manuel Mirás-Avalos found, during fruit development water stress will prevent peaches from reaching acceptable grades. By contrast, Dejan Djurovic used Granny Smith to show that partial root zone drying can be a success.

Alternately applying 60 per cent of the irrigation needed to one half of the root system while the other is allowed to dry produces acceptable quality. Fruit stored for 180 days after root zone drying retains good-quality in terms of dry-matter content, flesh firmness and total soluble solids.

Minimal pesticide is another consumer demand. Novel control of spider mites was demonstrated by Katsumi Ohyama from Japan. Juvenile develop-ment is disturbed in two-spot and Kanzawa spider mites by using multiple LEDs. Predatory mites such as Neoseilus californicus can be stored for a month at low temperatures in dry conditions. The Viridaxis Company from Belgium has developed cocktails of six natural aphid predators. These developments offer new approaches for integrated control.

Mathematical models

Raising cost-efficiency requires innovative science and technology. Increasingly, this means constructing mathematical models of horticultural crops. These provide an overall understanding of the entire crop and its surrounding environment, explained Gerhard Buck-Sorlin from Angers’ Agrocampus Quest. Specialists combining their knowledge and expertise in different aspects of horticultural science provide descriptions of a crop. They define how crops respond to surrounding environments and the way in which those responses are conditioned by their genes.

For example, models can bring together physical studies of air movement in a glasshouse, the subsequent stresses that motion imposes by bending rose shoots and the way genes switch on flower bud opening as sugars are released into the cells. Very powerful computer programs are now available that can combine the vast amounts of data needed for these models. Practical results, for instance, will be new glasshouse roses tailored for plant shape and the regulated production of flower buds. Linked glasshouse environments will balance red and blue wavelengths of light, triggering regulated bud bursts suited to periods of consumer demand. As a caution, Buck-Sorlin added, never forget that "the plant is always right".

Some integrative work is already in hand, as demonstrated by Rémy Aurand from France. Tomato fruit ripening is being described through analyses of the functioning of 400 proteins, studies of vitamin C, soluble sugars, insoluble solids and dry matter contents as well as mechanical tests for fruit texture such as skin strength. The result will be new cultivars that exploit specialised environments providing fruit qualities more closely suited to consumer demands.

Climate change worries some consumers, but as yet they do not really understand the implications. Potential effects on fruit cropping in Europe were described by Michael Blanke. Northern colder zones will suffer increased winter chill. But in warmer southern Europe, winter chill will decline. That affects the longevity and depth of dormancy. As a result, flowering becomes irregular and yields in fruit and nut crops decline. Husbandry strategies that could be used as replacements for the lack of deep dormancy and its subsequent breaking include shading, defoliation, irrigation, mineral oils, hydrogen cyanamide (Dormex), mono-, di- and polysaccharides, proteins and nitrogen.

Identifying geographical areas where the current climate resembles that predicted for an area by 2050 provides helpful indicators. For example, it is predicted that by 2050 southern England will resemble southern Portugal with hot, dry summers and warm, wet winters with little winter chilling. That would certainly prejudice currently used cultivars of apple and stone fruits. Retaining our orchards is important not only for fruit production but as a means of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Italian research shows that apple orchards are as effective as deciduous forests in storing carbon.

Professor Geoff Dixon is managing director of
GreneGene international.

Supporting urban horticulture

Consumers living in urban areas want opportunities for home production. Encouraging these ambitions is immensely important as a means of increasing well-being, good health and social cohesion.

But Christian Ulrides, Europe’s professor of urban horticulture from Berlin, demonstrated that there are disadvantages as well as advantages. Food plants grown in urban areas contain high concentrations of pollutants and toxins well above levels permitted in commercial crops destined for the supermarket shelves.

Hendrikje Schreiter, also from Berlin, found heavy metals, nitrates, phosphates, sulphates and ammonia present in urban dust. Urban greening can trap these substances and, in particular, he showed the benefits of planting between tram tracks, which captures particles and pollutants.

Federicia Larcher from Turin explained that for green roofs, walls or tram tracks, simple unfussy plants are the best workhorses. They include Lonicera nitida, Bergenia cordifolia and Heuchera spp. as well as many grass species.

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Professor Geoffrey Dixon

GreenGene International chair Geoff Dixon on the business of fresh produce production

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