Global Agriculture

Developing new breeding strategies for resilient and highly nutritious berries

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“We are delighted to be part of the BreedingValue project consortium. Consumer tastes are changing and production costs are increasing so growers need varieties that are productive, have low picking and management costs, good pest and disease tolerance and require reduced inputs, and they must also satisfy retailer and processor requirements which would include large fruit, good flavour, extended shelf life and season.”

21 January 2021, UK: Increased demand in berries across Europe meets the challenges brought on by climate change, environmental preservation and the need for new cultivation systems as well as high-quality produce. The new research project BreedingValue, a European collaboration of 20 partners from eight countries, launches today and will explore the most promising berry genetic resources to address these challenges.

Receiving just short of EUR 7 million from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme, the project will be coordinated by the Università Politecnica Delle Marche in Ancona, Italy, over the next four years and features the James Hutton Institute, its commercial subsidiary James Hutton Limited and Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland (BioSS) as research partners. 

Berry production is widely established throughout Europe, especially strawberry as the most important crop. However, raspberry and blueberry also play a significant role in European agriculture: strawberry (Fragaria) with a harvest area of 105,798 ha and total production of 1,275,946 tonnes compared to raspberry (Rubus) with 41,436 ha and 219,112 tonnes and blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) with 15,395 ha and 95,674 tonnes.

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These berries offer valuable prospects for the development and economy of rural areas in the EU due to their high-value, both in the fresh market segment and the processing industry. Considering the standard gross margins, they are far superior to crops such as wheat or corn and in response to increasing market demand, cultivation has expanded continuously, mostly due to the recognition by the consumer of the higher sensorial and nutritional quality.

Being the richest fruit in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre, they play a vital part of a healthy diet and are included in current dietary recommendations on the intake of fruits and vegetables. Growing these berries requires highly specialised knowledge and is, using the current cultivation systems, highly resource-intensive. Current berry cultivars have a limited environmental tolerance which is determined by the plant’s germplasm and reduces resilience to different environmental factors. At the same time, the quality of the fruits determines the success in the market by meeting consumers’ expectations. Failure to produce high-quality berries carries the risk of reduced profitability and sustainability for individual farmers but also the market as a whole due to high wastage. This is where BreedingValue intends to leave a mark.

The project aims at bringing together public and private actors, internationally renowned scientists, genetic resource managers and SMEs, with substantial experience in managing and characterising berry genetic resources as well as berry consumers across Europe for the use and development of germplasm and new genetic and phenotyping tools. This will allow for studying the current biodiversity of these crops by applying advanced genotyping and phenotyping tools, and identifying new pre-breeding materials to be used for the creation of new resilient cultivars with high-quality fruit.

In addition, BreedingValue intends to expand communication in the breeding-consumer chain, both nationally and EU-wide, for the present and future benefit of berry breeders, nurseries, growers and consumers. Furthermore, in order to create a strong connection between public and private institutions, berry breeders will be invited to participate in open calls for proposals to collaborate on specific project activities, such as marker-assisted selection, genomic selection, genome-wide association studies and the development of methodological tool kits for sensorial quality assessment of berry genetic resources.

“Central to the success of BreedingValue is the establishment of a large network of experts in conservation, genetics, genomics, breeding, biotechnology, biochemistry, phytopathology, bioinformatics, statistics and the production of berries. This unprecedented multidisciplinary structure will help us attain and develop new insights, information and concepts benefitting the berry GenRes community and reinforcing the connection between EU producers and consumers.” says Prof Bruno Mezzetti, Full Professor in Fruit Crop Breeding and Biotechnology in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Environmental and Crop Science at the Università Politecnica Delle Marche and coordinator of the BreedingValue consortium.

Soft fruit breeding has been a staple output of the science at the James Hutton Institute and its forebears since the 1930s. Today, raspberry, blackberry, blackcurrant, blueberry and redcurrant all have their own industry-funded breeding programmes in place at the Institute, managed by James Hutton Limited.

Hutton breeding programmes are supported by a 450-strong team of researchers, scientists, field staff and breeders with unrivalled expertise in pest and disease management, genetics, diagnostic development, plant stresses, imaging, modelling, statistics and more, and they are set to benefit further from investment at the James Hutton Institute when ground breaks on the £32 million Advanced Plant Growth Centre. Recent success from the raspberry programme includes the first-ever root rot-resistant variety Glen Mor.

Dr Susan McCallum, blueberry breeder at the James Hutton Institute and leader of the Institute’s contribution to the project, added: “We are delighted to be part of the BreedingValue project consortium. Consumer tastes are changing and production costs are increasing so growers need varieties that are productive, have low picking and management costs, good pest and disease tolerance and require reduced inputs, and they must also satisfy retailer and processor requirements which would include large fruit, good flavour, extended shelf life and season.”

The Institute is contributing to the project through staff at its Cell and Molecular Sciences and Information and Computational Sciences departments, along with colleagues at Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland (BioSS). Hutton bioinformaticians will develop and deliver solutions to store and visualize phenotype, genotype and passport data for the project building on the Institute’s established Germinate platform.

Overall, the 20 BreedingValue partners jointly pursue the following key objectives: 

Designing innovative breeding strategies providing berry producers with commercial cultivars ensuring resilience, without a fruit quality penalty, across a broad range of geographic conditions. 

Exploring berry germplasm with a particular focus on contemporary challenges in breeding, in order to assure genetic diversity and berry industry success across Europe. 

Improving characterisation and selection efficiency among berry germplasm by providing new modern genotyping and phenotyping tools for identifying, sharing and disseminating results on factors controlling resilience, stress tolerance, yield stability and fruit quality. 

Specifying and communicating sensorial quality factors and consumer quality preferences for different berry species in different parts of Europe. 

Identifying and introducing superior germplasm for public and private European berry breeding programmes, as a valuable source to develop cultivars ensuring high-quality yield by sustainable production methods under different climatic environments. 

Developing concepts and user-friendly tools for documentation, communication and visualisation of berry germplasm at European level and even beyond, which will reduce conservation risks and improve the utilisation of berry genetic resources in breeding programmes. 

Consolidating networking on berry genetic resources – breeding interface in Europe and provide participation, training and outreach to conservers, breeders, nurseries, growers, consumers and citizens. 

Improving the capacity of the EU berry industry in order to maintain high competitiveness at national and international level. 

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