How the strawberry took over the world - with a little help from the science lab

How did strawberries go from a six-week summer treat to a foot soldier in the front line of the supermarket product wars? Gerard Gilbert goes through the hothouse doors at East Malling Research to find out...

'Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did," the 17th-century writer William Butler said in praise of strawberries – although strawberries in the 1600s were a good deal smaller than today's giant fruits; God could have made a better berry, but plant-breeders doubtless did.

In any case, the British public is in broad agreement with Butler's sentiment, and this middle weekend of Wimbledon will coincide with the frenzied mass consumption of the tennis championships' subliminal emblem – Fragaria ananassa (literally, the 'pineapple strawberry'), the modern, commercial hybrid of the nation's favourite soft fruit.

And we're not talking peanuts here, or milk, bread and chickens – because incredibly, supermarket strawberries out-sell even those staples. "Last week, strawberries were the top-selling product at Waitrose," says Nicki Baggott, their chief buyer. "They are consistently in our top five bestsellers throughout the year." Marks & Spencer have offloaded 20 million strawberries in the past seven days (enough to cover 3,200 Wimbledon Centre Courts, according to their chief soft-fruit buyer, Bill Davies) while Sainsbury's shifted a similar quantity.

"To give you an indication of how important they are to Sainsbury's, for the next four or five months they'll be our top-selling line in the whole business," says the supermarket's Simon Hinks. "It's the longest period of time any product remains number one in our whole business. It's hugely important, which is why we spend so much time and effort to get it right."

And much of that time and effort is spent in a small corner of north Kent that just about manages to cling on to its bucolic past, despite the fact that its hop gardens and apple orchards have long ago been grubbed up and new housing estates nibble at its fringe.

The globally-renowned East Malling Research (EMR) is just down the road from where my wife grew up. And my father-in-law Simon, who still lives there and hires a part-time gardener who once worked at the research station, says he has no real idea of what goes on in this jumble of science labs, residential blocks, barns and greenhouses – rather like a small boarding school attached to a farm. Time to find out.


And what a surprising place it proves to be. A hive of cutting-edge horticultural research founded in 1913 by an association of 600 fruit growers (and these days a charitable trust), EMR is most famous for its work on rootstocks – fruit trees are always sold in sizes beginning with the letter M; M for Malling). The research station also lends its name to a whole host of fruit varieties, from blackcurrants ('Malling Jet'), gooseberries ('Malling Invicta'), raspberries ('Malling Jewel', 'Malling Delight') and apples and pears. It's most famous strawberries are 'Cupid', 'Pandora', 'Vibrant', and a new cultivar from last year – the research station's 100th birthday – 'Malling Centenary', the first fruit hybrid to ever be shortlisted for the Plant of the Year at the Chelsea Flower Show.

"Here, try one... I bought these this morning from Sainsbury's," says Adam Whitehouse, who along with Abi Johnson, has run the strawberry breeding programme at East Malling since it began in 1983. It's a very tasty strawberry. For comparison, Whitehouse has also purchased a punnet of 'Elsanta', the 30-year-old Dutch-bred industry standard popular with farmers because of its high yields and ease of growth, but something of a pantomime villain among strawberry cognoscenti. The 'Malling Centenary' look plumper and more uniform than the 'Elsanta', but Whitehouse declares himself unimpressed by this particular sample of his creation. "Not as sweet as we're used to... a bit watery for me... I'm a bit disappointed."

Sainsbury's worked with EMR to develop 'Malling Centenary', and Whitehouse and Johnson show me into a huge hothouse where the breeding takes place: thousands upon thousands of subtly different strawberry plants growing in what looks like suspended guttering, their roots expanding, not in Mother Earth, but coir (a by-product of the coconut industry) in order to avoid soil-borne pathogens.

"We raise 13,000 plants each year and from those we'll only select 1 per cent to go forward for further trial," Whitehouse informs me, the rejected 99 per cent including some intriguing sounding renegades – and if Heston Blumenthal ever wanted a strawberry marketed under his name, surely these would be the ones. "We get cheese flavour coming through sometimes, we've had black pepper, banana, pineapple, Stilton," he says. "You have to decide whether there's a market for that or whether it's too way out there."

Thousands upon thousands of subtly different strawberry plants grow in what looks like suspended guttering Thousands upon thousands of subtly different strawberry plants grow in what looks like suspended guttering (David Vintiner)
The whittling down to just a single superstar berry will take up to eight years, until the chosen one is presented to the supermarkets to test on their consumers. The perky-looking 'Malling Centenary' has more breeding than most Derby winners. Not that we shoppers are unduly impressed.

"People don't often look at variety names," says Johnson sadly. "But we're trying to promote names because often people go to a supermarket and say, 'Oh I had a great punnet of strawberries last week and this week they're not so good'. But they're a completely different variety..."

Finding the winning cultivar is only part of the breeders' work, and the duo's original remit back in the 1980s was to extend the British strawberry season from its traditional six weeks. And thanks to selective breeding and the greater use of hothouses and 'plasticulture', the season can now stretch from as early as March until as late as December. "It cuts down on imports," says Whitehouse. However, it also means that swathes of countryside are covered in polythene – turning parts of Kent from the Garden of England into a sort of Christo and Jeanne-Claude environmental artwork.

"Raping the landscape," is how Monty Don intemperately described the commercial-use polytunnels in his Herefordshire backyard, and the National Farmers Union claim that 90 per cent of strawberries are now grown in this manner. However, the required planning permission means the tunnels stay in one place, a lack of rotation that encourages soil-borne diseases. Dr Richard Harrison, a molecular biologist at EMR, is looking at genetic ways of breeding soil-pathogen resistance into strawberry plants. "This is an arms race," he says, showing me the station's £80,000 genome sequencer. "It's all about identifying natural resistance. Polytunnel strawberries aren't in the > ground, they are in bags on the ground. It's perverse really. The quicker we can get back into the soil the quicker we can be more sustainable."

The centre raises 13,000 plants each year and from those only select 1 per cent is selected to go forward for further trial The centre raises 13,000 plants each year and from those only select 1 per cent is selected to go forward for further trial (David Vintiner)
Is he genetically modifying plants? "You don't actually do any GM," says Harrison. "We generate genetic markers, little flags that mark out traits like disease-resistance, fruit quality and so on. That allows breeders to combine material much more cost-effectively. We were very well-placed to first transform strawberries back in the Eighties, but as far as I'm aware nowhere in the world has a GM strawberry ever made it to market."

A recent internet scare story (at least it's scary if you're allergic to peanuts) claimed that geneticists in America had created a GM strawberry that is less susceptible to freezing weather because it had been combined with peanut DNA – a claim dismissed by molecular biologists. "We don't need to look within other species," says Harrison. "We draw on material already in the strawberry. It's what frustrates scientists a lot – GM is seen as one thing and not many different things."

In another corner of EMR, entomologist Dr Michelle Fountain is looking at ways of deterring destructive flying insects – and encouraging beneficial ones. 'Bio-control' is the watchword here. "I'm interested in pollination, pests on plants and also the predators who consume them," says Fountain, by way of introducing herself. "I also do a lot of work on pheromone development." In fact, she currently has some capsid bugs – a sap-sucking pest – strapped into a glass tube. "They've been in the chamber for four or five days... males in there, females in there," she says of her experiment to extract the female capsid pheromone, which could then be used to lure male capsids to their entrapment. "Capsids cause something called 'cat-facing' in strawberries, so the end of the strawberry looks like a cat face," she says. "If you get them going through your crop you can't sell the fruit."

Thanks to selective breeding and the greater use of hothouses and 'plasticulture', the strawberry season can now stretch from as early as March until as late as December Thanks to selective breeding and the greater use of hothouses and 'plasticulture', the strawberry season can now stretch from as early as March until as late as December (David Vintiner)
A criticism often levelled at the modern supermarket strawberry – the ubiquitous 'Elsanta' in particular – is that they're tasteless compared to the varieties of yesteryear, although as celebrity greengrocer Charlie Hicks explained to a journalist a few years ago, it is not entirely the berry's fault. "If it's grown properly it can be very tasty," he said. "The problem is that, because of the enormous pressure from supermarkets on growers to produce higher yields at lower prices, it means pumping the produce full of water. Water's cheap."

And it still is relatively cheap, says Dr Mark Else, who heads the 'resource efficiency for crop production' research at EMR, but not for much longer. Having stepped on a sterilising mat, and changed into gumboots and white lab coat, I join him in the GroDome where he conducts his research. "Saving water won't necessarily be a driver for some growers now, but in the future it will be," he says. "Drip irrigation is what most conventional strawberry growers use, but these are about to be covered by new legislation. All drip-irrigators will have to prove an efficient use of water."

Happily for farmers, Else has discovered that plants actually produce better fruit, and with a longer shelf-life and increased health-giving properties (ounce for ounce, strawberries contain more vitamin C than oranges) when they received up to 80 per cent less water. And the flavour was better, according to the tasting panels set up by Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. "Growers all said it was absolute madness to grow strawberries in soil this dry, but what they're underestimating is the ability of the root system to extract water."

Dr Richard Harrison with EMR’s £80,000 gene sequencer Dr Richard Harrison with EMR’s £80,000 gene sequencer (David Vintiner)
The fruit are not always the bringer of prosperity for supermarkets, as Tesco discovered to its cost in 2012 when they were fined £300,000 for a misleading price-promotion on its supposedly 'half-price' strawberries.

Generally, however, it's all about finding new ways of marketing this hugely popular product. This month, for example, Marks & Spencer started selling baby berries – ones that might otherwise slip through the net by being too small – as 'Strawbabies' (genius!), as well as ready-prepared strawberries that have had their calix (the green stem) removed and packaged with a pot of cream, so you don't have to get home before you tuck into them.

Back at EMR, I ask Adam Whitehouse whether he ever buys the fruit to eat at home. "No... never! But when you go round to people's houses they think it's really funny to serve you strawberries," he says, before returning to the greenhouse where he's conducting his latest breeding programme to find the best strawberry varieties to be grown without soil. "It's a global business," he declares on parting. "And it all starts here".


'Malling Centenary' (Sainsbury's):

"It's got a really lovely balance of sweetness and acidity which sometimes you don't get in a strawberry," says Simon Hicks of Sainsbury's. "Sometimes you just get sweet and watery, but Malling's got a really lovely rounded flavour."

'Jubilee' (Marks & Spencer):

"Our number-one strawberry," enthuses M&S's Bill Davies. "It looks like how everyone expects a traditional strawberry to look, with a nice heart shape, deep red colour, nice shine and with a nice green calix… people will look at the colour contrast between the calix and the strawberry."

'Sweet Eve' (Waitrose):

"A good balance of sweetness with low acidity," says Waitrose's Nicki Baggott. "I also like 'Sweet Eve', as the eating characteristics are consistent through the season, come rain or shine. It may not be as soft as other English varieties, but I do not see this as a negative."

'Murano' (Sainsbury's):

"Strawberries struggle to get both flavour and brightness of colour at the same time," says Hicks. "Murano's got both. Customers tell us that they like the mid-red strawberry colour – they don't want light pink and they don't want dark red, they want a lovely mid-red which screams British summer."

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Life and Style
Customers look at the new iPhones on display at the launch of the new Apple iPhone 6 and iphone 6 plus at the Apple IFC store in Hong Kong
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style

ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Andros Townsend is challenged by Vladimir Volkov
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week