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See how our current work and research is bringing new thinking and new solutions to some of today's biggest challenges.

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By David H. Freedman
  • Cornell AgriTech
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Horticulture Section
  • Plant Breeding and Genetics Section
  • Agriculture
  • Food
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Health + Nutrition
  • Plants
  • Crops
  • Horticulture
  • Pathology
  • Genetics
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Walk into the produce section of any grocery store and you’ll see dozens of signs labeling the fruits and vegetables. Most simply indicate the common name, such as broccoli or bananas, but for apples, the signs help you zero in on specific varieties like Empire, Fuji and Gala.

However, if you were on Cornell’s Ithaca campus last fall, you might have found a few cafés with wooden crates full of fruit simply labeled “Apple A.” These apples have distinctive red, russetted skin dotted with white spots. Take a bite and you’ll get a complex, nutty sweetness that’s not quite like any apple you’ve ever tasted.

So why does it have such an unremarkable name? The short answer is that Apple A isn’t ready for the broader market yet. Breeding, licensing and retailing new produce are all complicated processes, and convincing consumers to trade their favorites for something new isn’t any easier.

A legacy of better breeding

CALS has produced 290+ fruit varieties
including apple rootstock and grapevines

CALS researchers are known for their innovative work in producing new varieties of fruits and vegetables—ones that taste better, have longer growing seasons and are more resistant to threats from diseases, insects and weather. The varieties they meticulously breed over the years give farmers, producers and consumers more options that better fit their needs.

But developing new produce comes with a daunting list of criteria, and it can be tough to balance the different needs of so many stakeholders. Now the bar is moving even higher, said Phillip Griffiths, associate professor in the horticulture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS).

“When I started here in 1999, our efforts were focused almost exclusively on disease resistance, yield and the other things growers wanted,” he said. “But in recent years, there’s been more interest in developing products that are aimed at what consumers want too.”

This shift has opened the door for CALS breeders to show the creative side of their expertise.

“Right now, the food system is wide open to change, unlike at any point in my lifetime,” Griffiths said. “Anything can happen.”

Spinning the wheel of traits

CALS has produced 165+ vegetable varieties
in addition to thousands of improved breeding lines

Back in 2004, Griffiths decided to grow new varieties of tomatoes that would give consumers more diverse color and flavor profiles. “I was originally interested in coming up with a finger-shaped tomato that could be a substitute for baby carrots,” he said.

But when he took this idea to the greenhouse, the new fruit didn’t grow quite the way he was hoping.

When researchers cross-breed plants to enhance or minimize certain traits, it’s a genetic gamble to land the winning combination of characteristics. A plant with one desirable quality, like taste, that is crossed with a plant that has another ideal trait, like texture, might produce offspring that has both, one or neither of those qualities. Further complicating the breeding process, traits can skip generations and reappear months or years later.

“By combining different shapes, I eventually developed tomatoes that looked exactly like chili peppers,” Griffiths said.

But he wasn’t discouraged by the odd shape. He was inspired. “Since tomatoes and chili peppers are two of the most popular foods in the world, I thought it might have a lot of appeal.”

This variety still needs a few more years to ensure that offspring remain stable from generation to generation, so that farmers and consumers receive a predictable product. From idea to market, this will amount to some 15 years of breeding work—not unusual for scientists like Griffiths.

As a rule of thumb, adding a new trait can double the timeline for successful cross-breeding, said Julie Dawson ’03. She later conducted postdoctoral work at CALS before becoming an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 2013.

“Everyone wants to breed something that tastes good, but there are as many as 20 or more other traits that are important,” Dawson said. “If a squash is going to rot before it reaches sellers or is easily damaged, it’s not going to fly with growers no matter how great it tastes.”

What’s in a name?

Marketing a new creation also presents a substantial challenge. Michael Mazourek, Ph.D. ’08, associate professor in the plant breeding and genetics section of SIPS, is another researcher coming up with novel varieties, and he’s taken an unconventional approach for getting his produce on consumers’ plates.

One of the biggest obstacles for breeders looking to develop specialty crops, Mazourek explained, is simply getting them recognized as unique products—both in the food production pipeline and among consumers.

“I could rattle off 50 different cultivars of butternut squash, but most are sold under the commodity name of ‘butternut squash,’” said Mazourek. “You can come up with a better variety, but if people don’t recognize it, you can be stuck clawing for traction and impact in the market.”

Part of the problem is that most breeders’ efforts tend to be invisibly absorbed in the commercial food chain. The term cultivar refers to the result of “improved breeding lines,” in which genetic changes have been made to an existing variety. They generally leave Cornell as seeds, destined for companies that will then grow and cross-breed the CALS material with their own varieties and improved breeding lines.

This allows commercial growers to tailor varieties to meet the needs of customers in different markets—in the U.S. and around the world, said Mary Kreitinger, executive director of the Vegetable Breeding Institute in the plant breeding and genetics section of SIPS.

Researchers might give their budding varieties unique names, “But unless a seed company markets our variety by name, we usually have no way to track it and don’t know how or where it gets to consumers,” Kreitinger said.

Seed companies often treat their products as proprietary and don’t disclose the vegetables’ origins. That policy can give businesses a competitive edge, but it leaves consumers in the dark.

Moreover, potato growers and producers, for example, care more about a variety’s overall traits than about its name. Developed at CALS, Lamoka is the most popular, publicly available potato for making potato chips in the U.S. But because farms plant multiple varieties throughout the growing season, and because large-scale producers source potatoes from different farms, you’ll never know whether you’re eating a CALS variety the next time you pop a bag of chips.

Mazourek broke through the anonymity barrier when he sought a new model for how vegetable varieties could gain more traction. His specialties are squash, peppers, cucumbers and snow peas, and he ended up partnering with Manhattan chef Dan Barber and grower Matthew Goldfarb to co-found Row 7 Seed Company. Their goal is to create opportunities for bringing diverse produce to farms and consumers by working with chefs who embrace new ingredients.

“I did it to fill a void in the market,” said Mazourek, who gets no money from or equity in the company. “I like to create things that stand out, and we use enjoyment of flavor to drive change.”

And now, Honeynut squash—a smaller, more flavorful variety of butternut squash that Mazourek helped develop—has earned name recognition on the national market.

Breeding for the new consumer

In theory, fruits should have an easier time making a name for themselves. Since apples and berries are perennials, researchers typically stabilize the traits themselves and release varieties that are already branded for market. With apples, the stabilization process can take decades, and producers don’t have the luxury of spending time on additional improvements because they need to focus on current market trends.

However, for annuals like cucumber, squash and kale, seed companies can mix and match traits from different cultivars relatively quickly. This is why it can be to a vegetable breeder’s benefit to focus on a handful of desired traits, rather than the complete package. 

Establishing a new variety in the marketplace is still an uphill battle, and not always in a breeders’ best interests, said Jessica Lyga, senior licensing and business development officer at Cornell’s Center for Technology Licensing. “We do market research to see if the new variety would be just another entry among 200 in a commodity market or a shining star that’s clearly better than what’s out there,” she said.

It takes more than just catching consumers’ eyes, said Susan Brown, the Herman M. Cohn Professor of Agriculture and Life Science and head of Cornell’s apple breeding program. Many consumers are willing to try a new type of apple once, she explained, but repeat sales determine if a new apple can make a dent in an already competitive market.

For SnapDragon, one of Brown’s most well-known apple varieties, the decision to go big wasn’t that hard. “The first time I bit into it, I said, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and everyone who tried it agreed,” she said. “I’ve never been so confident in a fruit.”

The apple was released in 2015, following the 2014 release of another variety called RubyFrost. Crunch Time Apple Growers, a cooperative open to all growers in New York state, formed a partnership with Cornell and licensed the rights to grow and sell both of Brown’s varieties. Crunch Time then leveraged social media to generate interest among its audiences.

In 2018, the company doubled the volume of SnapDragon sold over the previous year, and it’s on track to double again, with RubyFrost also recording strong, steady growth. SnapDragon has also been a hit on the international market, including in Canada, Israel and Vietnam.

The enormous respect for CALS breeders doesn't come from sales figures alone. Their mission is to help New York state farmers thrive—advancing the sustainability of crops and improving the diversity of produce available to growers and consumers, said Mazourek.

He added that CALS researchers work closely with farmers on every aspect of the crop selection and growing process. “As academics, we want to help understand the world more clearly,” Mazourek said. “But in the end, we want our work to translate into better lives.”

Still, the occasional consumer hit is welcome.

Perhaps the next one is sitting in a wooden crate labeled Apple A.

 

David H. Freedman is a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Header image: Cornell’s apple breeding program works to develop new varieties that are easy for growers to manage in the orchard and that are appealing to a broad base of consumers, combining unique flavors, textures and other attributes, including nutrition. Photo: Allison Usavage.

This article was originally published in the CALS Magazine.

An abridged version of this story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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