Sunday, 17 March 2013

Juggling disease resistance and flavour: Monsanto tomato breeder Doug Heath

Heath. Source: Stewards blog.

This story was commissioned by an editor I worked with frequently when I worked as a freelance journalist. The story came up because there were two Monsanto breeders from the US visiting Australia and he wanted to give his readers - growers, wholesalers, distributors, retailers - a bit of information on the types of work the company had been concentrating on for the Australian market. One was a capsicum breeder and the other was Doug Heath, a tomato breeder. I interviewed both men on the phone while they were visiting growers in north Queensland.

It should be kept in mind that these men only use conventional breeding techniques for their new lines, and never GM techniques. "We heavily use molecular markers for the traits," Doug told me.

"The marker technology that we have in our company is I think probably unparalleled. I think a lot of the other large companies have the capability but, for example, in Woodland where I work we have what we call the high-throughput lab which really allows us to run thousands and thousands of samples without any problem because the process is all automated with robotics.

"I’ve been working on this for 20 years, in the tomato breeding there, and when I started out none of this existed at all. It’s amazing the speed that we’re able to work now to produce new things, it’s really phenomenal. It’s very exciting. It’s just a tool that allows us to work very fast."

STORY - A version of the following story was first published in the August 2012 issue of Good Fruit & Vegetables magazine, a Rural Press (Fairfax Media) publication.

Monsanto tomato breeder Doug Heath visited Townsville in June 2012 to meet with growers and Australian colleagues. Based at the main research hub for Monsanto’s vegetable division, in Woodland, California, Mr Heath has worked with the company for 20 years and was involved in the introduction of the Pinnacle variety.

“The main traits we’re working on are disease resistance traits,” he said. “That’s where we’re really at right now. Our big hybrid here of course is Pinnacle and that came on the scene a little over a decade ago.

“Pinnacle brought an important disease resistance, which is resistance to fusarian wilt race 3. Now, I’ve added some important new virus resistances. One of the most important probably is tomato yellow leaf curl virus.”

Monsanto treats Australia as a separate market because of its market size, but Mr Heath is able to draw on Monsanto’s global collection of germplasm to introduce desirable traits, such as disease resistance.

“When you have a new disease resistance and you’re starting from scratch we often have to go back to the wild ancestors of the tomatoes and it does take long. But we were fortunate with these two viruses, we’ve already had them working in other areas of the world and so we simply intergressed those into the Pinnacle background.”

As well as discussing Pinnacle with growers, Mr Heath also talked with them about a new pre-commercial hybrid called 215 that additionally has resistance to tomato spotted wilt virus.

“215 has the fusarian race 3 resistance like Pinnacle but it also has tomato yellow leaf curl and tomato spotted wilt viruses, both. It’s like a double-whammy of virus resistance in there.”

Mr Heath says that diseases can appear in different parts of the world at the same time. Tomato yellow leaf curl virus, for example, started showing up “all over the place” in the last few years.

“For example, in Hawaii, which is not a big tomato market but it’s also a market that I deal with because it’s in my zone, the tomato yellow leaf curl showed up, same thing, maybe three or four years ago and the growers started asking for it.”

Fruit quality is also something that Monsanto prioritises.

“Not only with 215, but there’s some new follow-ups that I have coming behind it which I’m going to be looking at trials this week where we really set the bar high for ourselves. Pinnacle has tremendously good fruit quality and we’re just not going to accept a lesser quality just to have the resistances in there.”

Mr Heath said that a trait that is of personal interest for him is fruit flavour.

“For me, having been doing this for about 20 years, it’s very refreshing to me that flavour is now finally a focus.

“Our customers are basically tomato growers (and) tomato shippers. For many years the primary thing was to make these things as hard as a rock, like a baseball; you could throw it against the wall and not have damage. We’ve done a great job on that but I think along the way, sometimes we ignored flavour.

“Now consumers are getting a much bigger variety of tomatoes in the retail than even was the case 10 years ago.”

While the handling system in the past favoured picking fruit green, Mr Heath said that nowadays there is pressure “to go more vine-ripe” because that is what consumers are asking for.

“The nice outcome of it is you get more vine-ripe material in the market, like Pinnacle is of course an excellent vine-ripe tomato. And that raises the bar. Then people say, ‘Why would I want this tasteless thing, I’ve got a very tasty thing. Give me something as tasty or even more tasty.’”

He said that he has had an heirloom tomato hybrid program going “for about the last 15 years” and that Monsanto is almost ready to release some of this material on a commercial basis.

“We’re poised to release to the market some very nice, improved heirloom tomatoes which have the colours and the flavours that people are liking but are firmer and they don’t crack and they have the disease resistance.”

There are a lot more varieties available in major retail outlets than there were even 10 years ago, partly because consumers are more aware of the provenance of their food.

“And also some innovative breeding and innovative marketing have kind of coalesced with certain varieties entering the marketplace, that have notched up the flavour aspect in the retail. I think years ago the consensus was, ‘Yeah, I love tomatoes but in order to grow really great ones I really have to grow them in my own garden. The commercial stuff is lacking flavour.’”

In the US, retailers are very aware of changing consumer preferences, Mr Heath said. Given the opportunity to sample new varieties at Monsanto’s northern “summer trials” in August, retailers have been asking questions as they collect new products for their stores.

“It often comes down to they’ll see something very novel and they’ll say, ‘Well, do you guys have the capability to have a high enough yield on this, or a long enough shelf life that we can go into mass production and mass marketing on this?’ That’s good questions by those guys. They often bring that reality to bear. We respond immediately.”

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