The apple, cherry, peach, and strawberry breeding activities of RosBREED are located across the United States at university, federal, and private sector locations.

The apple, cherry, peach, and strawberry breeding activities of RosBREED are located across the United States at university, federal, and private sector locations.

What do genomics and socioeconomics have to do with deciding which fruit cultivar to plant next year?  Until now, not very much, but that is about to change.

When producers of tree fruit and small fruit add acreage or renovate an existing planting, their choice of cultivar genetics is of fundamental importance and will contribute positively or negatively to their profitability. They will consider what the consumer wants as well as what they as producers can successfully and consistently grow to achieve high yields and packouts. To make the best choice, they may talk to their neighbors, read trade publications, consult extension sources, or scan nursery catalogues.  Or delay the decision and order what’s ­available.

More commonly now, though, they will at least consider how the cultivar will perform throughout the supply chain, not just on the farm or in the shopping basket.  That means considering the preferences of middlemen—the packer/shipper, the processor, and their ­associated marketing elements. Middlemen are a critical part of the supply chain, yet producers and consumers alike often consider these market intermediaries a ­necessary evil, or just plain evil.

Cultivar preferences

Just as producers are considering the whole supply chain in their business, so should fruit crop breeders. Thus, the specific cultivar preferences of producers, consumers, and market intermediaries are all important parts of the equation.

For processors, such cultivar preferences are often well known and clearly communicated.  Processors operate facilities and business plans around specific cultivars with predictable attributes.  Thus, a plant breeder developing cultivars for processing markets is able to target certain traits with at least some degree of certainty of their relative value to market intermediaries.

The situation for fruit breeders developing cultivars for the fresh market is not as obvious. If a cultivar is sufficiently attractive to consumers, then growers, packers, and shippers will adapt their business operations to accommodate an item that is quite challenging to grow and handle, but profitable, e.g., the Honeycrisp apple. Despite that, most of the Honeycrisp supply chain from growers to retail would welcome a cultivar that was as appealing and profitable, yet easier to grow and handle.

And, given the availability of modern genetic technologies and DNA-based information, isn’t that what we might expect from fruit breeding programs?

Sure, but to develop such cultivars for both fresh and processed markets, fruit breeders need more than just genetic tools. They would be more efficient and effective if they knew better what producers, consumers, and market intermediaries value, so they could use their ­creativity and technology to develop cultivars that ­optimally satisfied, or even surpassed, those criteria.

It is not that fruit breeding programs in rosaceous crops have ignored such an approach or are oblivious to whole supply chain values and preferences. Some recently developed fruit cultivars are partial successes, but compared to other specialty crops, fruit growers simply don’t have choices for cultivars that satisfy those multiple criteria.

What is the problem?

For one thing, there are just not that many rosaceous crop breeding programs—around 50 in the United States right now, more or less evenly split between tree fruit and small fruit. Even this number is dwindling as public programs are closed with no significant increase in private sector programs.

For another, fruit breeding programs have always required a lot of time, space, and money. Their crops are expensive to grow, require specialized plantings, equipment, and training, and many take years to produce fruit.  No different than commercial producers.

Fortunately, while the problem is not an easy one to solve completely, help is on the way, with significant potential impacts for producers, consumers, and market intermediaries alike.

The change is driven by an ambitious and exciting project called RosBREED, led by Drs. Amy Iezzoni at Michigan State University and Cameron Peace at Washington State University. This project is a multistate, multiinstitutional, multi­national effort dedicated to improvement of U.S. rosaceous crops by targeted applications of genomics knowledge. With over $7 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative and another $7 million in nonfederal matching funds over its four-year timeframe, RosBREED is unprecedented in its scope, vision, and focus on breeding superior crops of the family Rosaceae (almond, apple, blackberry, cherry, peach, pear, raspberry, ­strawberry).

Simply put, RosBREED exploits our knowledge of genomics—how DNA works in a plant—to accelerate and increase the efficiency of rosaceous breeding programs.

The 12 breeding programs highlighted in Figure 1 now using ­traditional approaches will be able to apply cutting edge genetic tools and techniques for their specific crops and ­target traits.

While this is itself an exciting step forward, breeders in those programs have little empirical basis on which to assign relative importance to their specific selection targets, so decisions are based largely on their experience and viewpoint—influenced by industry and market forces, but not transparently so.

To transform that situation, RosBREED’s socioeconomic team, an outstanding group of social scientists led by Dr. Chengyan Yue at the University of Minnesota, in close collaboration with the 12-member breeding team led by Dr. Jim Luby at the ­University of Minnesota, is developing survey tools to identify valuable breeding trait targets based on knowledge of what industry sectors and consumers value, thus informing and changing the breeders’ decision-­making process.

They have already conducted an initial survey of U.S. rosaceous breeders and over the next three years, they will conduct and analyze these surveys targeting three sectors: market intermediaries, producers, and consumers, an unprecedented endeavor. Breeding and market decisions will benefit from a science-based understanding of the preferences, attitudes, beliefs, concerns, and constraints of those three components of the supply chain.

Ultimately, RosBREED integrates socioeconomic and genomics approaches to develop new cultivars with targeted appeal, quicker acceptance, and enhanced ­commercial impact.

Survey burnout is a terrible affliction of the U.S. fruit industry, but when you have the opportunity over the next three years to provide your input to RosBREED via surveys developed by its socio­economics team, please do so. Your responses will contribute directly to improving the profitability and sustainability of our whole supply chain, and provide consumers with ever more delightful and healthy eating ­experiences.

In the meantime, get to know your regional RosBREED participants. Check out and prepare for your survey!