Convenience – the need to make today’s harried way of life easier to manage is everywhere we turn, no more so than when it comes to how and what we eat. Even preparing a salad must now be quicker and simpler yet also tastier. But how easy is that for suppliers and buyers to offer? It’s a question international vegetable breeding company Enza Zaden is seeking to answer as it spearheads an innovative project to develop better performing lettuce varieties specifically suited to the processing market
Some 10 years ago, roughly a quarter of European and US lettuce production was sent for processing to be sold on the convenience market, whereas nowadays it’s more than half (60%), according to estimates based on sales data compiled by Enza Zaden.
“In every country, lettuce is consumed less as fresh and more as a processed product,” the firm’s produce chain manager, Chris Groot, tells Produce Business UK. “And processors everywhere are facing the same problems. That means the need to breed solutions for the salad processing industry has become much more relevant.”
Groot says shelf-life, in particular, has become an issue for lettuce processors, with browning, bruising and rotting causing the biggest headaches. “The main problem is that the leaves start to brown within a couple of days of being cut,” he explains. “They can also show bruising or discolouration (turning purple).”
Although technological solutions like modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) can help to overcome such issues, Enza Zaden, which holds a 25% global market share in lettuce varieties, has decided to look at the genetics of lettuce.
The aim is to discover whether, with the support of molecular marker technology tools, varieties can be bred for processors that offer much better shelf-life performance from the start – without the need for post-harvest technology.
“Our vision is always to go for it if we think there’s a problem we can solve,” Groot states, adding that he believes Enza Zaden is the first company to go down the route of breeding lettuce specifically for use in the processing sector.
To simulate the problems experienced by processors, the company developed a small lettuce processing test area at its breeding station in Allonnes, France. Then it started looking at the genetics of lettuce.
“We had to build our own processing facility to experience the problems that growers and processors face because we can’t see that in the genetics alone,” Groot comments. “Breeders also can’t send genetic materials to a processor every week over a number of years to be analysed. You have to have your own small processing facility to test in-house. Then you can also show the processors that you can validate what you found [in the genetics].”
Two years ago Enza Zaden found that there are indeed some genetic differences in lettuce that are related to performance – differences that the firm can tap into to breed new varieties that feature the required characteristics for productivity, resistance and shelf-life, etc.
“It’s possible that we may have lettuce varieties that offer huge improvements [for processors] available for our European programmes in two years’ time,” Groot reveals.
The improvements aren’t just up one or two levels, either, according to Groot. “It’s a 100% improvement,” he states. “Genetics can offer salad processors a much bigger step forward in terms of performance than technology like special bags.”
In addition, thanks to its in-house processing simulator, Groot suggests Enza Zaden may discover other modifications that could enhance lettuce shelf-life too.
“You could find that the method of processing is what’s impacting on shelf-life, such as cutting with a knife compared with a machine,” he points out. “A processor could therefore combine best techniques with the best genetics. Or, you could discover that there’s no improvement to be made at all – that’s just part of being an innovative breeding company.”
The new, specialised varieties that Enza Zaden will bring to the market will offer huge added value for both processors and buyers, says Groot. “Processors will be able to start supplying better quality products, while for buyers the added value is that they get more flexibility and/or less waste, and a better quality product from the processor.”
With innovation expected in the short-term, Groot anticipates that in 10 years’ time all of the lettuce varieties Enza Zaden breeds to supply worldwide will use this new genetic ‘toolbox’ the firm is in the process of developing.
Scope for expansion? More dialogue needed first
What’s more, Groot believes this process of natural selection could be used for all sorts of fruit and vegetable varieties. “It doesn’t have to be just lettuce that benefits from this process,” he comments. “It begs the question; can we use it for other products? I’m not sure which other crops would be relevant, but we can definitely make these kinds of steps in other crops.”
Indeed, the challenge for breeders, suppliers and processors is always to take the next step and remain innovative, according to Groot. To that end, he says to make real progress, growers and processors need to partner with breeders and work much closer together.
“It’s a long-term project,” he muses. “Vegetable breeders are oriented to the long-term; they know things take time because they are used to waiting for results over five to 10 years. It’s important that we discuss with the fresh business what the benefits are [of looking further ahead].”
Groot believes the most important step will be to develop constant lines of communication with processors and growers, which Enza Zaden is already doing. “Processors need to start sharing their problems – even if they don’t think they have a problem we’d like to hear from them,” he points out.
“There needs to be more dialogue. I invite them to share their problems with us. In our work so far we’ve identified a lot of problems already. The more dialogue we have, the wider our scope becomes and the better the results will be because in nature we can find so many hidden solutions.”
To provide even greater services for the processed salad and fresh produce industry as a whole, Enza Zaden itself also needs to take the next step. By 2017 its Enkhuizen facility will be twice as big as today. “We need more space for breeding, seed production and molecular marker technology,” Groot says.
Is molecular marker technology genetic modification?
Groot says definitely not; clarifying that the technologies used are tools to understand and apply genetic knowledge in breeding. “We don’t alter the genetics as in genetic modification,” he explains. “With molecular marker technology we just make the characteristics present in the genetics visible.
“To breed varieties for the fresh market, we are looking at the genetic variations in commercial lettuce, but also increasingly at what is available in nature, such as disease resistance, for example. For the processed industry, there are potential solutions also available in wild resources.”
Describing molecular marker technology as a “beautiful” concept, Groot claims that with such capabilities, once breeders have found the right genetic characteristics for a certain performance trait, it’s easy to identify those characteristics with a marker to use in the selection process for developing new varieties. “You take that marker to the laboratory with a leaf bunch, the breeders decide which crossings to do, and you end up with 10 varieties to trial.”
To sum it up, Groot explains that if you have the ability to identify characteristics relevant to certain lettuce shelf-life performance, like browning and discolouration, then a breeder has a toolbox to start breeding varieties that lack the genetics that cause those problems.