Scotland’s James Hutton Institute has been awarded a £1.3 million grant for an ambitious project that could soon deliver better tasting and higher yielding UK-grown blueberries and raspberries
The UK’s soft-fruit sector has long combined local supply with overseas-sourced volumes, to meet increasing public demand for fresh berries. A new project being run by a group of researchers in Scotland aims to tilt the sales balance further towards the UK grower, and the fruit of of their labours could reach supermarket shelves before the decade is out.
Based in Dundee, close to Scotland’s Perthshire berry-growing heartland, the James Hutton Institute – together with its commercial arm, James Hutton Ltd – is working on a new, berry sector-led initiative focused on improving raspberry and blueberry yields and varieties.
The recipient of a £1.3m government grant, the James Hutton Institute aims to have new varieties ready within the next three to five years that will both improve British growers’ capability to produce high quality berries and boost UK soft-fruit sales for grocery retailers.
According to the Institute’s Dr Julie Graham, the monies received are essentially to provide funds for three related projects, focusing on raspberries and blueberries.
In the case of raspberries, the objective is to boost the sustainability of the British raspberry sector by returning production to the soil.
“The raspberry sector in the UK is really struggling because of raspberry root rot, a soil pathogen that is increasingly difficult to control,” she explains. “Root rot practically renders the soil unsuitable for growing raspberries.”
Dr Graham says the project’s objective is the development of raspberry varieties that are resistant to root rot, explaining that it is using Latham as its basis – a remarkably resilient North American variety that never dies in an infested field.
The Institute’s work to date has concentrated on crossing Latham with existing James Hutton varieties, such as Glen Moy, in order to produce varieties that combine a great taste with a resistance to root rot.
“If we can understand what the resistance mechanism is in Latham, we can develop varieties with better resistance,” says Dr Graham.
One of the problems with current, pot-based raspberry production systems, she argues, is that they are neither sustainable nor meet growing levels of demand.
“Worldwide, the demand for raspberries is enormous and people haven’t been able to keep up with it,” says Dr Graham.
Compared with pot-based systems, which typically last for three to four years, Graham says that plants grown in soil can produce raspberries for 15-20 years, meaning they are more sustainably productive over a significantly longer period of time.
“There’s a big difficulty with the lifespan of raspberries at the moment and we need to think more sustainably – it’s all about getting the raspberries back in the ground,” she says.
“Raspberries grown in soil are less labour intensive and easier to care for.”
In contrast to the raspberry initiative, the blueberry projects are very much focused on increasing yields of UK-grown fruit.
As Dr Graham explains, one of the biggest problems British producers face when fulfilling retail orders is the inconsistency of supply, with some years delivering far lower yields than others. “You can’t meet demand for supplies if yields one year are eight times lower,” she argues.
While climatic conditions obviously play a part, Dr Graham says the Institute will be gathering historical data from growers across the UK in an attempt to understand why some years produce bumper harvests and others deliver comparatively modest volumes.
“It’s all about trying to stabilise yields, not just in Scotland, but across the whole of the UK,” she says. The project will also use data from the UK’s only blueberry breeding programme, run by the Institute’s commercial arm, James Hutton Ltd.
“Better varieties is the bottom line,” says Dr Graham. “UK growers need better varieties that will grow well across the UK. People want to buy British and are willing to pay a small premium, but not much more.”
Ultimately, for all the projects, Dr Graham says achieving better tasting varieties is of equal – if not more – importance than improving yields and disease resistance. “People will only buy them once if they don’t taste good,” she says. “It has to be the whole package – taste, appearance, shelf life and disease resistance – and that’s what’s so difficult to achieve.”
The project has taken shape as a result of grower requests for new varieties of raspberries and blueberries that are better-suited to British growing conditions. “We have had fantastic support from the sector both in Scotland and the rest of the UK,” she says. “The Latham project has been very much about the sector feeding back to us.”
Dr Graham is confident that the first fruits of the raspberry project will be ready for retail sale within the next three to four years, given progress has already been made developing new varieties based on Latham.
Blueberries have a significantly longer growing cycle, but Dr Graham believes that still improved varieties of the sought-after fruit could also be ready within as little as five years from now.