Breeding the variety of the future
Exclusivity thanks to innovation
Dr. Walter Guerra & his team
Research Centre Laimburg
We eat it every day or nearly every day. Statistically speaking, about every three days. It’s the apple or malus domestica in botanical terms. Its ancestor was the Kazakh malus sieversii, a wild apple native to the Tian Shan Mountains in today’s Kazakhstan where wild apples still grow on trees that can reach altitudes of up to 30 meters. Today’s largest apple production areas, however, are elsewhere. There, nothing is left to chance and you try to find the best fruit for the respective production area with the help of specific breeding measures.
In South Tyrol, the pomology work group of the Laimburg Research Center in Ora consisting of 8 members examines and breeds new apple varieties. 50,000 seedlings are under constant observation at the institute for fruit production and winegrowing under the leadership of Dr. Walter Guerra. With a probability of 1:10,000 one of them is the seedling that will be the next successful variety. The world of Guerra and his team is an exciting one. The Laimburg Research Center and another 80 breeding initiatives worldwide unite specialized knowledge in the field of pomology. This know-how is not an end in itself but supports apple producers and their producer organizations worldwide with advice and solutions. Statistically speaking, traditional varieties such as Golden, Gala and Red Delicious still dominate the shopping lists of European consumers who eat an average of about 100 apples per year. But the consumers’ tastes and eating habits changed rapidly during the last decades and this trend is supposed to continue in future as well. „While Italians mainly eat apples for dessert and divide them among the family members after the meal, they are eaten as a snack elsewhere and thus have to be smaller than a large apple for the whole family.“ Very different markets and ideas of the consumers as far as the ideal apple is concerned. How can an apple production region such as South Tyrol with 18,000 hectares of production areas best serve markets that are so different?
„The decision was taken many years ago: diversification thanks to varietal assortment. We are thus flexible enough to meet the needs of the different markets regarding fruit quality.“ Dr. Guerra and his team make a significant contribution to this varietal assortment. They thus walk in the footsteps of great predecessors such as Thomas Andrew Knight. Knight was a leading pomologist and member of the Royal Society in the 19th century who aimed at increasing the yield of cultivated plants with the help of scientific breeding methods. „He was one of the first breeders and brought system to fruit-growing,“ says Guerra. The same systematic approach is applied at the Laimburg Research Center when it comes to breeding a marketable apple variety.
„Breeding is not a sprint but a marathon,“ underlines Guerra.
„It takes decades until a new variety finds its way to the shelves. We have to anticipate the consumers’ taste and habits in 20 years’ time. Not easy at all but very exciting.“ It’s a bit like buying clothes today that you have to wear in twenty years. Fashion will change in the meantime. So how can you hit the mark? But Mr. Guerra is sure he can. You can see it from his expression. He is too much a scientist to feel insecure. And besides, he and his team are looking for “the variety of varieties”, some kind of timeless apple that everyone loves. So there’s no reason to doubt. And if any doubts should arise? Then they are just encouraging and motivating. „Today, there are more than a dozen significant apple varieties in South Tyrol. There will be some 30 in 10 years’ time,” estimates Dr. Guerra.
„The first step is defining the breeding objectives.“ They should define the characteristics of the ideal future apple. Taste, color, consistency and other equally important factors such as storability, yield and sensitivity of both apples and trees play a fundamental role in this context.
„As soon as we have defined the characteristics of an apple, we can identify possible „parent varieties“. We manually pollinate the mother plant with the pollen of the father plant and thus get the first fruits in autumn. This crossing contains apple seeds with characteristics of both the mother plant and the father plant. We then plant the new seeds in spring and get new seedling trees that produce fruits of the new apple variety in the following years. The first apples grow after app. 7 years. You then choose the trees whose fruits are closest to the desired variety. The subsequent test phase lasts more than a decade.“
The constant exchange with the producer organizations and the continuous study of the needs of key clients and end consumers ideally allows you to select the best apple variety for a specific geographical area. Key words such as „innovative“ and „exclusive“ always remind us of the great responsibility we have. Only innovative varieties, which can be offered with a certain exclusivity by the producers, can guarantee satisfactory results for both the consumer and the farmer. How will Val Venosta’s 5,200 hectares of apple production areas look like in 30 years? This is also determined by experts such as the breeders in Ora.
„While busy bees could create thousands of new apple varieties by arbitrary pollination, our team strives to find the best variety for the respective production area.“ A variety that, considering the climatic conditions and market requirements, is able to secure a future for the producers. This is an exciting, honorable and responsible task carried out by a team of motivated researchers that has meticulously worked in the many testing fields all around South Tyrol for decades.
New varieties such as Ambrosia™, WA38 Cosmic Crisp®, Shinano Gold yello®, Scilate Envy® or Bonita are at the ready in Val Venosta and have already been through decades of testing at Laimburg and other institutions. They have already arrived in the future and now have to face the greatest challenge: the constantly changing consumer market.