Many small steps... one giant leap

Working with farmers, growers, suppliers, exporters and marketers to add value to primary production is all in a day’s work for Declan Graham, Business Manager – Science, Plant & Food Research. Here, he argues that incremental, positive change is often the quickest way to The Next Big Thing in horticulture.

declan graham plant and food researchIt’s bidding time. The corridors of universities and institutes are alive with the appropriate buzz words: outcomes, impacts, transformational innovation. Pitches are being prepared for a new round of Government-funded research; minds are exercised as sector economics and scenarios are matched and aligned with research strategies. Industry leaders and entrepreneurs are quizzed about their vision, their export goals and The Next Big Thing.

There is an implied urgency in phrases like transformational innovation. The fact is, many big innovations in horticulture are actually delivered incrementally, in small steps over long periods of time.

Take for instance the development of yellow-fleshed kiwifruit by New Zealand scientists. In 1975 a packet of seed arrived in New Zealand from the Chinese Academy of Science. Over the next five years, DSIR plant breeders visited China and returned with more seed and plant material, leading to crosses being made in 1987, and the selection of Hort 16 A in 1991. Sensory testing in Japan, Taiwan and Germany confirmed consumer appeal and finally in 1996 plants were released to growers – ZESPRI Gold was born. Intense research followed and vine management and postharvest strategies were developed to optimise fruit quality and condition during storage and distribution to international markets. By 2011 exports of gold fruit had grown to 16 million trays with a value of $300m .

Similarly for Apple Futures – the pipfruit sector’s ultra-low residue programme that’s been praised for retaining as much as $113m of exports over the four years following its launch. 

This science and industry-led initiative can be tracked back to the 1980s, with research focussed on an integrated fruit pipfruit production system – necessitating the removal of toxic insecticides from orchard spray programmes and the development of less disruptive technologies. HortResearch scientists synthesised insect pheromones that interfere with a pest’s ability to find a mate. Researchers investigated and introduced predator insects for targeted biological control of pests. Disease models specific to our environment were developed for optimising the timing of sprays. The impact – thirty years after the first projects started – has been a dramatic reduction in pesticide usage in New Zealand apple orchards. Total insecticide active ingredient (kg active ingredient/hectare) use on ‘Braeburn’ decreased by approximately 80% nationally between 1996 and 2003. Over the same period, the USDA inspection failure rate of apple consignments to North America due to finds of live insect fell from annual highs of 60 plus to just a few. In 2007 an intensive chemical residue monitoring programme was initiated and by the 2008-9 growing season, 65 percent of apples produced met the phytosanitary requirements of over 65 countries - and were either residue-free or with residues below 10 percent of EU regulatory tolerances. In 2012 all apples exported to Europe were Apple Futures compliant. 

On-going pipfruit research has seen the release of a water footprint and carbon footprint for the New Zealand apple crop. Affirmation of the market value of all these projects was the approval for use of “100% Pure New Zealand Apples” branding on export cartons.

Transformational change is often the culmination of incremental shifts over long time periods - the ultimate impact may not be realised until many years after the initial research. A visionary outlook and strong science partnering are the required prerequisites to help sectors place themselves ahead of the game.

The pipfruit sector partnered with scientists to gradually eliminate disruptive organophosphate insecticides from their production system.

 This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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