Chile may well have developed a solid counter-seasonal kiwifruit supply to over 60 countries worldwide, but the South American nation is not resting on its laurels. Far from it, in fact, as the industry pushes ahead with a two-pronged breeding programme to develop new varieties that it hopes will strengthen the country’s global export position and shore up profitability for growers. Produce Business UK speaks with Carlos Cruzat, president of the Chilean Kiwifruit Committee, to learn what the future holds
Current state of play
The Hayward variety continues to account for the vast majority of the 10,337ha of production and around 200,000 tonnes of kiwifruit exported from Chile each year between May and October. Despite not being bred for Chile’s growing conditions, Hayward has proven to be a very stable and valued variety, according to Cruzat, thanks to its production flexibility and capacity, plus its reliable storage properties.
“Hayward has given the kiwifruit business the ability to grow, to be present in different geographical areas of the world, and, in turn, that has allowed the supply of kiwifruit from different countries to complement each other during the same season or counter-seasons,” he explains.
“This gives great value to the variety: it has the flexibility to be produced in many parts of the world and to be supplied by two hemispheres, which allows for a permanent presence of the variety and helps to develop category consumption.”
So far, the general trend in Chile has been to maintain Hayward for kiwifruit production but to improve its aesthetics, internal quality and sales through ripening programmes in order to offer consumers a tasty kiwifruit that’s been properly ripened and encourages repeat purchases.
It’s why the committee developed its Ripeness Assurance Programme some years back to set the minimum parameters under which member growers can harvest their fruit. “We have integrated field production with a smart post-harvest and logistics management programme to provide a product for six to eight months with a very good flavour at the point of consumption,” Cruzat point out.
Now, however, he says Chile is approaching the world of new varieties as a “future necessity”. Indeed, while Chile is one of the world’s leading kiwifruit suppliers, the country faces stiff competition from New Zealand in terms of both price and productivity. New Zealand also has its own successful kiwifruit breeding strategy, as detailed in a recent interview with Zespri on Produce Business UK.
What Chile wants to offer
Operating under the auspices of the Chilean Fruit Exporters Association (Asoex) and the Fruit Growers Federation (Fedefruta), the kiwifruit committee’s stated aim is to ‘enhance and ensure the competitiveness of Chilean kiwifruit in its destination markets’.
Staying true to that objective, the committee has begun a breeding programme to deliver the market what it demands product-wise, while at the same time offering new business tools to Chilean kiwifruit growers of the future.
To that end, the committee is looking for new green and yellow varieties, as well as genetic crosses of varieties that will be developed in Chile. In particular, Cruzat says his growers want yellow varieties that are adapted to Chile’s growing conditions. Furthermore, they are interested in red varieties – ideally those that can complement Hayward with other attributes.
Flavour, productivity and shape
While the committee will be looking for obvious characteristics like homogeneity and nutritional content, with all the new varieties Cruzat says Chile’s number one requirement is excellent flavour at the “point of consumption”, followed by productivity and shape.
“What we are looking for is a certain amount of crop per hectare, shape and flavour,” he explains. “The fruit must be able to naturally deliver a good amount of sugar. Also, because the business is based on kilogrammes per hectare, we are looking for productive varieties, and fruit that has a good shape from an aesthetic perspective.”
In the case of green kiwifruit specifically, the committee hopes to find a good-sized variety whose skin colour is more green than brownish. Many of these characteristics can be accomplished in part by having good genetics and good pollination, according to Cruzat.
As for yellow kiwifruit, Cruzat claims the industry is actually responding to a market request for additional volume, with plantations that will produce more of the variety in the short term.
“Yellow varieties have been planted around the world for 15 years,” explains Cruzat. “Some are already more advanced in terms of offering a club variety, such as Kiwi Kiss or JinGold. Behind them, there are other varieties that are coming through with interesting volume, such as Enza Gold, Soreli and before long Dori, among others.”
Aside from flavour, productivity and shape, the committee is looking for varieties that can offer grower-suppliers good post-harvest and storage conditions too, and this is for several reasons, says Cruzat.
“Chile is a country that is far from all world markets,” he notes. “Today over 90% of Chilean fruit is sold in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, only a little volume is marketed in nearby Latin American countries or on the domestic market. Our fruit has to reach markets as far away as China, India or Siberia. Therefore, we have an obligation to seek varieties with good storage, post-harvest and travelling capacity.”
Furthemore, Cruzat says that kiwifruit is a product that usually is stored for a long period of time, which calls for other relevant attributes.
“We want to have available at least eight months’ worth of Chilean kiwifruit sales as part of a co-ordinated programme with supermarket chains and importers in different markets,” he says. “That makes the ability [for varieties] to travel well important and shelf-life very important.
“There are varieties which naturally have a better post-harvest condition so you can select those attributes. This can then be complemented by a post-harvest agricultural management programme to give the fruit a very good marketing prospect.”
Of course, Cruzat says the new varieties will also have to be adapted to Chile’s growing conditions in terms of its soil, water and climate, as well as new production realities like Psa disease.
“We want to work on test programmes for resistance to Psa,” he states. “Although today it’s possible to live with the bacteria, it is more prominent in the yellow and red varieties, so Psa must be one of the most relevant breeding variables to consider too.”
To fulfil its goal of producing and offering new varieties, the Chilean Kiwifruit Committee has begun a two-part and two-pronged global breeding project, financed in part by private funds and supplemented with public funds, which will last a total of 12 years.
This, explains Cruzat, is all possible thanks to the University of Chile in Santiago, which has partnered with the University of Udine in Italy and will be the Chilean leader of the genetic programme.
Three years ago the committee launched the first phase of the project, carried out by the University of Udine and the University of Chile, which aims to evaluate new green and yellow kiwifruit varieties.
The University of Udine will make the first selections and generate useful molecular markers to assist the breeding process, before the chosen varieties are tested early on in Chile to trial the production under the country’s own conditions and the business model assessed and chosen by the country.
That initiative is being complemented by the addition of a breeding programme for genetic crosses that is focused on obtaining new varieties developed in Chile specifically. Over the next one to two years, Chile is also looking for other partners to play a role in this genetic improvement scheme.
Cruzat says Chile is working with the University of Udine, not due to the agreement signed between the committee and the Consorzio Kiwifruit of Italy, but rather because of the affinity that exists between Italy and Chile.
“For decades Chile has had a very good relationship with Italy and other countries, and we consider Italy to be a great fresh fruit grower and partner,” he explains. “We see a lot of possibilities with Italy, and with many other producing countries, to complement our supply in order to build a strong strategy to promote fruit consumption around the world.”
In terms of results, Cruzat points out that traditionally it can take 14 years to deliver a new variety to the market, seven of which are spent breeding and selecting, with the remaining seven dedicated to considering the trade aspects, production requirements and establishment of commercial parameters, such as aesthetics, size, storability and taste.
“We are not forcing genetics to give us an answer right now,” Cruzat states. “The genetic crossover is a very slow process. What we have done is initiate this process. Of course, we would like to have immediate results, but not everything depends on us. In 14 years’ time we are going to have very well evaluated varieties. But how successful these varieties will be depends on the luck of genetic improvement.”
That might sound like a protracted process to a retail industry that can change overnight, but Cruzat is quick to point out that Chile is not anxious to deliver a new product to the market in the short-term. “It’s our responsibility to begin a process that is rather slow,” he says. “Meanwhile, we are providing great-tasting fruit mainly through our ripening assurance programme and good packaging.
“There are people that want to discontinue the Hayward variety, for many reasons, but they may have their own commercial interest and are not necessarily thinking about the benefit to consumers. It’s an old variety that’s been the best for decades. When it’s harvested at the right point of maturity and ripened with the right controls, Hayward is a fantastic product.”