Plant breeders, by nature, are patient people. It can take them years or even decades to perfect a new variety of fruit or vegetable that tastes better, grows faster or stays fresh longer.
But their work has taken on a new urgency in the face of an increasingly erratic climate. Recent floods left more than a third of California’s table grapes rotting on the vine. Too much sunlight is burning apple crops. Pests that farmers never used to worry about are marching through lettuce fields.
Breeding new crops that can thrive under these assaults is a long game. Solutions are likely to come from an array of research fronts that stretch from molecular gene-editing technology to mining the vast global collections of seeds that have been conserved for centuries.
And, of course, the new fruits and vegetables have to taste good. “You can use these technical solves to find climate solutions, but they won’t be useful if it’s not what people want to eat,” said Michael Kantar, an associate professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa who studies wild relatives of existing crops.
A few of these new varieties are already in grocery stores, while others are still on the drawing board. Here’s a quick look at some of the most promising.
The Cheery line of cherries has been developed to do well even if temperatures rise. Credit…BLOOM FRESH
Cherries That Can Take the Heat
To produce fruit, cherry trees need what growers call chill hours: at least a month’s worth of accumulated hours of temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees. A winter that is too warm leads to erratic blossoming and sometimes no crop.
It’s getting harder for cherry trees in some regions to get enough chill hours. One solution is the heart-shaped Cheery Cupid from International Fruit Genetics, which was recently acquired by Bloom Fresh International. (The scientists behind it also bred those popular grapes that taste like cotton candy.) These new cherries need only about one-third the usual amount of cold weather. “What we are trying to do is make them more tolerant in the summer to withstand this ridiculous heat, but they also need to survive a hotter winter,” said Chris Owens, the lead plant breeder for the company.
The Cupids, which are juicy and sweeter than some other cherries, are one of several new “low chill” varieties sold to growers under the Cheery label. They should be available in the Southern Hemisphere this fall, and later in North American markets.
Cauliflower With Sunscreen
When a cauliflower is mature, its green leaves open and expose the white head, called the curd. That curd is extremely sensitive to sunlight — too much, and it can turn spotty and beige, which means it won’t sell at the grocery store.
To prevent this, farmers fold the leaves back over the curd by hand about two weeks before harvest, an expensive and time-consuming practice. As an alternative, plant breeders developed the Destinica true-white cauliflower, which is already a regular in supermarkets. Essentially, it doesn’t get sunburned. And it’s easier on the soil because fewer workers are walking the fields.
The Destinica is one in a line of climate-friendly cauliflower developed by Syngenta Vegetable Seeds, part of the Switzerland-based global agricultural company Syngenta. Farmers also are growing its weatherproof white cabbage, which requires less nitrogen fertilizer and can thrive during prolonged dry periods. It sits a little higher in the field than other cabbage, which makes it easier to harvest.
Melons That Drink Less
In 2011, after Colorado cantaloupes contaminated with listeria killed 33 people, researchers at Texas A&M’s Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center began trying to breed safer melons. But in the last decade, helping melons survive climate change has also become pressing, said Bhimu Patil, the center’s director.
To that end, the university, with funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, has released two new melons — the