Just outside Maidstone in the sleepy Kent countryside are several hundred acres of strawberry plants, dozens of apple orchards and all manner of other fruit plantations. Kent is the fruit basket – as well as the garden – of England but these particular fruits and berries aren’t destined for supermarket shelves this summer.
They are being developed and tested at East Malling Research (EMR), where for 100 years, scientists and fruit breeders have been working together to produce not only better tasting fruit, but varieties that can fight off disease and deal with our changing climate.
The 100 or so acre EMR site doesn’t look like much – in a few weeks’ time, weather permitting, that will start to change – but it is the source of some of Britain’s most loved varieties of fruit and a hotbed of technological change.
“We’re celebrating our 100th anniversary this year, but very few people outside the fruit world know what we do,” says the organisation’s chief executive, Peter Gregory. “This site is responsible for the rootstock that 75 per cent of the world’s apples grow on, 35 new varieties of strawberry and the technology behind chilled atmospheric storage that has revolutionised the way supermarkets can store and sell fresh fruit. And looking towards the future we are at the forefront of using plant breeding and genetic research to make fruits and plants such as roses far more efficient in a world of climate change.”
Until 2004, EMR was funded by the government, but since then it has been controlled by a private trust and supported by fruit growers and the big supermarkets – a Sainsbury’s sign reminds you of this at the entrance. Fruit is big business, with soft fruit alone worth £1bn a year to the UK economy, but East Malling feels more like a university science department, focusing on plant breeding and cross-pollination than a Monsanto-style science factory.
Its work ranges from a project with Asda to produce the first breed of seedless grapes suitable for the British climate to working on apple storage in atmosphere-controlled conditions. That means that apple varieties such as Braeburn can now be stored in low-oxygen environments for up to 12 months, reducing the need for imports. Most famously, East Malling is also the home of the rootstocks from which virtually all the world’s commercially grown apples are produced.
Most fruit trees are actually grafted on to rootstocks. These rootstocks are chosen to control the vigour of the plant, and among other things, allow cultivation in smaller spaces than if the plants were allowed to grow using their own roots. They also eliminate the “wait and see how a plant turns out” approach to plant cultivation. Most recently, though, EMR’s biggest successes have been with new types of strawberry.
We’ve been eating strawberries in Britain since the 16th century and in a good year British farmers can produce 400 tons of the sweet fruit a week in summer, but the types of strawberries we are enjoying are constantly changing. Historically, the high-yielding Elsanta variety, which has come in for criticism for being “tasteless” and been ditched by some high-end stores including Selfridges, has dominated. According to promotional organisation British Summer Fruits, Elsanta still accounts for 60 per cent of the British strawberries we eat, but new varieties are increasingly challenging it and EMR alone has released 35 new varieties of strawberry since 1985.
These varieties, including Vibrant, Sweetheart and Cupid, extend the fruiting season from several weeks in August to a period that, with the help of controversial polytunnels, can run from April until October. They have also changed the flavours we come to expect and over the past 20 years more than 250 million EMR varieties of plant have been sold to growers.
The Strawberry Breeding Club at EMR works by targeting areas for improvement, such as taste, yield or disease resistance and finding parent plants with these traits that can be crossbred. While genetic research is fed into the programme, the breeding is carried out using traditional techniques to create pollination. “Typically, it takes us seven years to bring a new variety to market from the first pollination and that new breed will have come from somewhere around 15,000 to 20,000 test plants,” says Gregory.
“Expectations of consumers are not the same as they were 50 years ago,” says EMR strawberry breeder Felicidad Fernandez who is part of the industry-funded club. “And as our tastes have changed so have our expectations of what we want from a punnet of strawberries. People want to be able to keep them longer, so shelf life is far more important, but they want them to be treated with fewer pesticides. In the 1950s you could spray pretty much anything you want on a fruit. Today there are different requirements and therefore with our knowledge... we can breed plants that are sweet and juicy but also pest and disease resistant.”
The latest result is the EM 1764, which chefs such as Michel Roux Jnr have hailed as the “strawberry of the future”. It yields earlier than the Elsanta with a stronger, sweeter flavour more like the wild varieties than the blander, supermarket berries.
In laboratory conditions scientists at EMR have also reduced the amount of water required to bring various strawberry varieties to harvest by as much 80 per cent. In turn this technique, which is based on understanding the genetic makeup of the plant is being trialled on the rose.
The hope is that the work at EMR will enable Kenyan rose growers to reduce the amount of water they use.“There are some traits you cannot compromise on, though,” says Fernandez. “A strawberry with a shelf life of one day, for example, will never sell in the UK... whereas in France shoppers have different expectation and buying habits. They will be willing to sacrifice shelf life for truly extraordinary taste.”
Other limitations are more important. “Shoppers like shiny fruit but also cohesive fruit,” continues Fernandez. “What keeps a raspberry together are drupelets. These are the tiny hairs, barely visible, between each segment of fruit. But it is these make the fruit appear dull so by pursuing brighter fruit, you are weakening the fruit. Ultimately you reach a point where you can’t make them any brighter without genetics playing against you.”
Most shoppers don’t think about the science behind their food, says Fernandez. But if they continue to demand new varieties of tastier fruit, grown in Britain all-year round, the scientists at EMR won’t be able to stop their work any time soon.