In spite of the 70 breeding programs around the world developing new tree fruit cultivars, most new varieties are disappointments and don’t succeed, says a European researcher. Growers, packers, and marketers have responded well to improved clones of established varieties like Gala and Golden Delicious apples, but the industry has not successfully introduced new apple varieties.
“Why do new releases fail?” asks Dr. Joan Bonany of IRTA, an agricultural and technology research institute owned by the Catalonian government in Spain. “There’s not a single cause for failure of a new variety, but failure can be the result of poor field or cold chain performance, poor technical accompaniment, limited category management at retail, and insufficient taste and flavor.”
Bonany said that new varieties are often selected for a site, but the industry expects them to grow everywhere. For example, apples grown in southern Europe must deal with sunburn, preharvest drop, poor color, and fruit finish issues. But northern European countries, like Germany, don’t have such problems.
Additionally, he said, new selections are insufficiently tested in the field or in storage. “The variety has to perform throughout the storage and handling chain. Often we learn about problems several years later after commercial release—problems like postharvest bruising or lenticelosis.” New varieties are often introduced without “how to grow” directions, he said, and they require years of trial and error by growers to learn horticultural practices that bring out the best in the new variety.
Another reason for failure is rigid fruit category management at the retail level that doesn’t allow additional shelf space for new varieties.
“We have to think about the consumer when releasing new varieties,” Bonany said, adding that some selections have insufficient flavor and texture and don’t appeal to a wide enough segment of consumers. However, he believes that flavor is improving with the new generation of releases and breeders are selecting for higher sugar levels.
With research budgets in most countries taking a hit from the depressed global economy, Bonany fears that adequate field and storage testing and knowledge about horticultural traits of new selections will become even more troublesome in the future.
“Many of the breeding gains that we’ve made with new selections have not been moved into production for growers with higher returns,” Bonany said. When a new variety falters at the retail level, all involved in the new variety suffer.
One way to reduce new variety disappointment is to step up independent and objective field performance testing and to intensify postharvest evaluation of new selections. And, the findings need to be published, he said.
“New varieties should come with driving directions—how to plant, prune, thin, and store.”
Bonany notes that although field testing in Europe is done through an extensive network of private and public entities, the two-stage evaluation of six trees per variety for five years, then ramped up to 100 trees per variety for another five years, is not sufficient to expose a potential selection to a range of climatic conditions.
New varieties can also fail because of a lack of consumer acceptance. In an effort to increase fruit consumption in the European Union, a research project called ISAFruit conducted one of the largest consumer fruit taste tests in the world to learn about consumer fruit preferences and consumer segmentation. ISAFruit, a five-year, 13.8 million euro project completed in 2010, involved 200 researchers from 60 research programs and 16 EU countries.
As part of the project, 5,000 consumers from 17 cities and 7 countries tasted 11 new and standard apple varieties. The standard varieties were Golden Delicious, Jonagold, and Fuji. Newer varieties included Pink Lady, Kanzi, Junami, Rubens, Dolce, Ariane, Ligol, and a few others.
The ISAFruit researchers mapped sweetness, acidity, sourness, and firmness on a four-square grid. Points north of the horizontal line indicated sweet preferences, south were sour. East of the vertical line were acidic preferences, west were sour and firmness.
“One thing we noticed was that there was no single variety located at the core of consumer acceptance (where the squares intercept). A lot of the varieties we tested failed in consumer acceptance,” Bonany said. “That means there is still room for variety improvement. If we’re able to put a variety in the core acceptance area, we can better ensure that a majority of consumers will accept it.”
Several of the new varieties in the test were bicolored, which confused consumers. “The bicoloreds all look the same, but they taste very different. This creates confusion with consumers,” he said, adding that the similar appearance of various red peach varieties has resulted in declining consumption in Europe. Consumers can’t tell if they are white flesh or high acid by looking at them.
Consumers familiar with tart, green apples like Granny Smith and red, sweet ones would likely be confused if the industry released a very sweet, green apple or a very tart, red one, he mused.
Consumer preferences were divided into three groups: Group A (68 percent of those tested) prefers sweet varieties, higher than 15° Brix with acidity lower than 6 grams per liter; Group B (26 percent) prefers acidic, crisp apples, acidity greater than 7 gram per liter. Group C (6 percent) didn’t like sweet varieties but specifically liked Fuji and Rubens.
Bonany believes that apple marketers may be sending varieties to the wrong segments of people. In northern Europe, consumers preferred more acidic varieties, while those in southern Europe favored sweet ones. Polish consumers showed the highest preference for sweet apples. Northern Germany had the greatest number of consumers that preferred acidic varieties.
“Consumer segmentation didn’t correspond with age and gender,” he said, an interesting factor that could be important in marketing campaigns. Most promotions focus on age or gender, but such focus might not be effective in reaching the target market.