A new line of fast-growing sprouting broccoli that goes from seed to harvest in eight to 10 weeks has been developed by John Innes Centre scientists.
The broccoli breakthrough could seriously ramp up yields as the fast-growing line could potentially lead to year-round supply, changing the current reliance on seasonal weather conditions.
According to the scientists, it has the potential for two full crops a season in the field or it can be cultivated year-round in protected conditions.
A John Innes Centre release explains how the part of the broccoli that is consumed is the flower buds, and this development builds upon previous research carried out by professor Dame Caroline Dean and her lab on vernalisation – the cooling of seed during germination in order to accelerate flowering when it is planted.
The precise timing of flowering is vital for a plant’s adaptation to the environment and its resulting yield.
Working alongside Professor Dean is Dr Judith Irwin and her team who have focused on translating this knowledge into Brassica crop species. They say that many crops rely on a cold period before they can flower and are extremely sensitive to fluctuating winter temperatures.
This is exactly what has happened this winter in major growing regions of Spain where extreme weather, including heavy rainfall before Christmas, followed by periods of very low temperatures and snow, have destroyed huge amounts of lettuce, cucumber, courgettes, broccoli and a range of other vegetables. This has led to serious shortfalls in UK’s supply and many retailers even started to ration lettuce sales because stocks were so low.
“We harnessed our knowledge of how plants regulate the flowering process to remove the requirement for a period of cold temperature and bring this new broccoli line to harvest faster. This means growers could turn around two field-based crops in one season, or if the broccoli is grown in protected conditions, four to five crops in a year,” says Dr Irwin.
On top of having a shorter growing period, broccoli production could be moved into urban farms which could increase yields and simultaneously reduce the carbon footprint of broccoli production and supply, adds Dr Jonathan Clarke, head of business development at JIC.
“The continuity of food production is being challenged by changes in our climate. We have been challenging the way people think about how we produce food. As part of this approach we are considering the potential of moving some forms of food production into contained horticultural production systems – these could range from simple glasshouse or growth rooms to more complex vertical farms,” he says.
“This new line of broccoli could be grown in such systems and would overcome the problem of seasonality and our dependence on imported crops.”
Earlier this month The British Food Report showed how vulnerable Britain’s vegetable supply is to adverse weather conditions, both at home and abroad. The UK’s reliance on imported vegetables is particularly acute with only 23% of fruit and vegetables grown in the UK.
“This is a very exciting development as it has the potential to remove our exposure to seasonal weather fluctuations from crop production. This could mean broccoli – and in future other vegetables where the flower is eaten, for example, cauliflowers – can be grown anywhere at any time enabling continuous production and supply of fresh local produce,” adds Dr Irwin.
The John Innes Centre aims to provide pre-breeding material to plant breeders and growers for year-round scheduling of Brassica vegetables and the broccoli project has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
The research team are now testing further generations under conventional glasshouse and controlled environment conditions. This line has been developed using conventional breeding techniques and the next steps will involve flavour and nutritional analysis and performance testing under protected and field commercial growing conditions.