Scientists have tasted the future - it's a red gooseberry, a pineapple- flavoured strawberry, and a green-pea steak

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The Independent Online
On a London street a builder stood idly peeling an orange and enjoying his lunch, little knowing that inside the building behind him, a group of scientists were planning a fruit revolution.

These men have seen the future and it involves an orgy of fruit all year round. No longer will it be impossible, or ruinously expensive, to eat English strawberries at Christmas, or Kentish apples at Easter.

Supermarkets will be able to manipulate our jaded palates into eating fruit at the "wrong time of year", simply because it is there.

And we will want to.

Modern intensive farming methods have increased the shelf-life of the fruit we eat, but it has been at the expense of the taste of the fruit, producing delicious-looking food which is disappointingly bland. Now, scientists are trying to put back the flavours of yesteryear, and return us to the golden age of the apple and the succulent strawberry.

The fresh-fruit market in Britain is worth pounds 2.2bn annually, of which 72 per cent is spent in supermarkets. That is the equivalent of pounds 95 per household, or pounds 40 per head.

A team at the government-funded Horticulture Research Institute (HRI) believes that increasing the flavour and shelf-life of British fruit will obviate the need to import vast quantities from overseas. Last year Britons spent pounds 190m on imported apples, with pounds 80m on French apples alone.

Dr David Simpson, a strawberry breeder at HRI, in East Malling, Kent, believes that nature simply needs a helping hand to cope with our constant craving for better and more interesting food.

"The reason that strawberries no longer taste good is because breeders have had to concentrate on increasing shelf-life, which meant using lots of chemicals and led to a loss of taste," he said.

"We have now found a way round that, and have bred the Bolero strawberry, which will grow right up until late October and still have the juiciness and flavour of a proper strawberry," he added.

Dr Simpson has also created a white strawberry but this is unlikely to be a commercial success as growers were unable to tell when it was ripe enough to pick. It also tasted of pineapple.

All this has been achieved by extensive crossbreeding and careful refining. Elsewhere at East Malling they have gone one step further and are using genetic modification to increase different fruits' resistance to disease as well as to improve flavour and prolong shelf-life.

Professor David James, who heads the Fruit Biotechnology group at HRI, said his team had identified genes which control the ripening process in apples, and had begun trials on the Queen Cox variety.

"We are hoping that the genes will programme the apple to dramatically reduce its production of ethylene, which is responsible for the ripening process," he said.

"By inserting these [genes], we should be able to slow down the ripening process and extend the apple's shelf-life without losing flavour."

This process has already proved successful in cantaloup melons and tomatoes, and trials will be completed in the next two or three years.

Genetic modification does not end with the improvement of fruits as we are used to seeing them. It has also been used to reinvent the gooseberry.

For many years this green, hard and spiny fruit has had an image problem, and has been relegated mainly to the canning industry. Enter the red gooseberry, set to be the fruit of the 21st century. Fat, sweet andsmooth- skinned, it practicallybegs for Delia Smith to give it the cranberry treatment.

Nor is it just fruit that is being manipulated. At Lucas Ingredients, scientists have spent five years extracting protein from everything from grass to lupins in their search for a new meat substitute.

They settled on the humble pea, and the meat-substitute, which combines pea protein and wheat gluten, will appear in supermarkets in the autumn.

The product, called Arrum, is aimed at a fast-growing market. The recent food scares and the desire for healthy eating have prompted nearly 50 per cent of Britons to cut back on their meat consumption. The UK market for vegetarian foods has grown by 83 per cent in the past five years, to pounds 388m.

David Baines, technical director of Lucas Ingredients, part of the Dalgety food group, said pea protein was "very palatable." It can be flavoured to taste like meat, and can also be made to look like meat with the addition of colourings.

For the moment, most of this work is at the trial stage. But perhaps, in the future, scientists will be able to create our real dream foods - bananas that never turn black, and strawberries that come ready-dipped in chocolate.