Super strawberries could benefit UK manufacturers

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Fruit Manufacturing Uk

Super strawberries could benefit UK manufacturers
New varieties of strawberries, custom-designed for manufacturing processes and the UK climate, could boost the tiny proportion of home-grown berries used by manufacturers, according to specialist plant breeder, East Malling Research Centre.

Research leader Dr David Simpson told “Lots could be done​ (to improve home-grown varieties’ suitability for manufacturing). For example, improved firmness, colour and suitability for mechanical harvesting could offer advantages compared with current varieties bred for the dessert market​.”

Improved firmness would enhance the berries’ suitability for freezing and their use with dairy products.

Stronger-coloured varieties could also be bred to retain their colour during manufacturing processes. “The most popular dessert varieties have a pale, orangey colour and a weak internal colour. Plant breeding could produce the strong internal colours manufacturers need for​ (processed) desserts and yoghurts​,” said Simpson.

Harvested mechanically

Breeding varieties suitable for the UK climate that could be harvested mechanically could help to significantly reduce costs, he added. “Strawberries are harvested by hand but if we bred varieties that could be harvested by machines ​(at significantly lower cost) that would change the economics of production​.”

Suitability for mechanical harvesting depends upon developing varieties that ripen at the same time and are resilient enough to be machine harvested.

At present, only about 2% of home-grown strawberries are used by manufacturers with the dessert market accounting for 98% of the national crop. “Fruit for manufacturing process is imported and price is the main driver arising from lower overseas labour costs ​(arising from hand-harvesting),” said Simpson.

But he noted little obvious demand for such varieties at present and warned that breeding new varieties is a long process. It usually takes about seven years from breeding a new variety to full commercial production.

Tim Place, managing director of Norfolk-based fruit and veg processor Place UK, welcomed the prospect of new varieties suitable for manufacturing – provided the price was right.

We tried a mechanical harvester a few years ago​,” he told "The results weren’t a success​.” Strawberry varieties that ripened over a short period would increase the opportunity for mechanical harvesting and lower costs, he added.

Other desirable attributes are firmness, leading to minimum drip loss after thawing, colour and good flavour, said Place.

Climate change

Meanwhile, Simpson said progress was being made in improving dessert varieties of strawberries. New varieties are being bred that are better able to cope with the predicted effects of climate change including higher summer temperatures and less rainfall.

Newer varieties currently under development will need less water to grow and need fewer agrochemical inputs, thanks to improved disease resistance, so reducing their environmental impact.

The new varieties, bred from crosses of UK and foreign lines, are undergoing field trials to assess six characteristics: Yield, fruit size, taste, shelf life, percentage waste and disease resistance.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman said in a statement: “Innovative research such as this may revolutionise the way we grow the nation’s favourite berry​.”

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