New Zealand kiwifruit giant Zespri invests more than NZ$15 million (£6.5m) in innovation science each year, underpinning its premium brand in the marketplace and helping the industry earn NZ$1.57 billion (£680m) in sales last year. In terms of breeding, the group places consumer satisfaction right at the heart of its objectives. Produce Business UK catches up with Bryan Parkes, the head of Zespri’s new varieties breeding programme – a joint Zespri and Plant & Food Research initiative, to discover what the world’s largest marketer of kiwifruit plans to bring to the table next
In last five to six years, Zespri has released a number of new varieties, notably Zespri Sungold, a superior gold cultivar; Zespri Charm, a smaller gold variety, which didn’t have the same rockstar success that Zespri Gold enjoyed when it was released in 2000; and Zespri Sweet Green, a smaller green variety.
In partnership with the New Zealand government and Plant & Food Research, the group is currently funnelling a massive NZ$20m (£8.7m) into the development of a new ‘traffic light’ kiwifruit offer that is aimed at delivering three new superior green, gold and red-fleshed varieties.
“We’re looking for a superior green kiwifruit variety with better flavour, yield and overall performance that can ultimately replace Hayward,” reveals Parkes. “Plus, a superior alternative to replace Sungold with more disease tolerance. And, finally we’re developing the last traffic light; a red-fleshed kiwifruit variety with a unique sensory experience.”
“We’re also looking at some different types of kiwifruit beyond those traffic lights – possibly other types of kiwifruit,” continues Parkes. “For instance, there’s a more edible skinned kiwifruit called the kiwiberry that’s marketed in Europe under the Nergi brand from French growers. We’re generally targeting the fresh whole fruit market.”
Parkes describes the natural breeding programme as “huge”; explaining that it will take 10 years to screen the 100,000 potential cultivars, which, understandably, makes it very difficult to determine when any varieties will become commercially acceptable and available.
“There is a massive amount of technology and development behind the project,” he adds. “There is also considerable value coming out of the programme. Annual sales of the Sungold variety, for example, are on track to be worth NZ$1bn (£433m) by 2020.”
What is Zespri looking for?
The bottom line of the breeding programme is what the consumer wants, according to Parkes. “We’re very consumer driven as a company and an exporting country,” he comments. “So we need to continually improve our product and one of the key ways is to develop new varieties. Our varieties are developed for the consumer and because of that they are more desired by the consumer, which means they’ll pay more and buyers can sell more at a higher rate.”
Parkes says today’s consumer wants a better taste experience and different flavours. “Mostly, we’re looking for a pleasant eating experience,” he says. “That comes down to lots of different things. It starts with the visual appeal, then the feel of the flesh, the flavour – including the sugar, acids and volatiles that you get off the fruit, the texture of the flesh, whether it’s easily scooped and doesn’t have a hard core. Consumers also want a green variety that doesn’t catch at the back of the throat because of the oxalate crystals, so we’re looking to tone those down too.”
Parkes claims it’s fair to say that the fruit’s health properties are a consideration in Zespri’s breeding programme too. Kiwifruit is known for its rich Vitamin C content (more than an orange) and beneficial effect for digestive health, in particular.
“That’s part of the kiwifruit signature, and we don’t want to produce a great tasting fruit that’s not healthy,” he notes. “That said, we’d have to try very hard to not have the health benefits [in new varieties] because they’re so intrinsic to kiwifruit.”
From a retail perspective, another aspect Zespri is conscious to consider within its breeding project is shelf life and how long kiwifruit can be left before eating. “For retailers, we don’t want to offer fruit that needs ripening, rather fruit that’s ready to go,” Parkes explains. “But, equally, we want the fruit to be able sit on the shelf for a bit longer, if necessary, as this results in less waste.
“For the consumer, we want to provide fruit that’s ready to eat when they buy it, so it’s less annoying to have to wait for it to ripen, but, unlike berries, we don’t want it to have a short eating window either.”
Ultimately, Parkes states the aim of the game is to deliver the best varieties for consumers that will garner a good sales return per metre of shelf space. “A product that’s desired [by consumers] is of great value to retailers,” he notes.
While the primary goal is what the consumer wants because, as Parkes points out, there is no point in having high yields and no market, the growers’ needs still play an important role in the breeding requirements.
Currently, from a grower point of view, Zespri is looking to offer new and improved varieties with resistance to diseases like Psa, as well as to improve productivity and supply chain performance.
“Psa is absolutely part of our breeding programme – that’s why Sungold has been such a success,” says Parkes. “The outbreak [of Psa] actually occurred within 2 kilometres of our breeding centre so we contracted the disease throughout the programme in a few months.
“This allowed us to see which varieties were affected as we could screen them all. Zespri Sungold was identified as being very good in terms of tolerance, while around the world most gold varieties aren’t very tolerant [to Psa]. We have a range of parent plants that are tolerant too, so we’re using those to develop new varieties.”
Indeed, gold is of major importance to Zespri and its growers worldwide. To date, the variety has achieved the highest premium in markets worldwide, according to Parkes. “The German palate quite likes the sour green kiwifruit flavour but around the world there’s a general trend towards a preference for gold,” he says.
Today, Parkes estimates there are a couple of major kiwifruit breeding programmes in Europe, several programmes in China but nothing that matches the scale or investment of the New Zealand initiative that’s been running since the 1980s and effectively pioneered the breeding of kiwifruit varieties for commercial production.
The trials are conducted on a small scale, all controlled and funded by Zespri. Later, the group involves global growers at a pre-commercial level in order to test varieties in every growing environment.
This is crucial given Zespri’s vast grower network, which includes more than 2,400 producers in New Zealand, over 150 in Italy, 800 in Japan, 130 in Korea and around 50 in France, Chile and the USA.
“The target is for these new traffic light varieties to be rolled out for all Zespri growers across our global platform,” says Parkes. “This comes down to convenience too. When a consumer wants to eat an avocado they want to eat an avocado; they don’t want to be concerned with seasons. It’s the same for kiwifruit. If it’s out of season in the southern hemisphere that’s our job to fix. Part of the answer is to have [varieties available for] northern hemisphere production too.”
At the end of this month on October 29, Zespri will host its inaugural Kiwifruit Innovation Symposium in Mt Maunganui where the industry will have the chance to see the group’s latest kiwifruit developments for itself.
“We want to show our growers and industry what’s coming up and the future challenges we’re tackling,” explains Zespri’s general manager for marketing and innovation, Carol Ward. “And it’s not all one way – we want to know what direction our industry thinks we should be heading in.”
For more information and to view the programme, go to zesprievents.co.nz