Scientists at Plant & Food Research are using their expertise in horticulture to explore the production of fruit without a tree, vine, or bush – instead using lab-grown plant cells. Initial trials have included working with cells from blueberries, apples, cherries, feijoas, peaches, nectarines and grapes.
Cellular horticulture, agriculture and aquaculture, the production of plant, meat and seafood products in vitro, is at the cutting edge of food technology worldwide. By growing food from cells in the laboratory there are opportunities to use fewer resources and improve the environmental impact of food production.
Food by Design programme leader, Plant & Food Research scientist Dr Ben Schon says there’s a great deal of interest and development in controlled environment and cellular food production systems, with more than 80 companies worldwide looking to commercialise lab-grown meat and seafood.
“Cellular horticulture currently has a smaller profile than cellular agriculture and aquaculture, but we believe this is a really exciting area of science where we can utilise our expertise in plant biology and food science to explore what could become a significant food production system in the future.”
Ben Schon says the team is now 18 months into the five-year long Food by Design programme, which is funded through Plant & Food Research’s internal Growing Futures™ investment of the MBIE Strategic Science Investment Fund. The research has also gained support from New Zealand company Sprout Agritech, having recently being accepted into their accelerator program designed for agrifoodtech start-ups.
Dr Schon says initial trials have used cells harvested from blueberries, apples, cherries, feijoas, peaches, nectarines and grapes. Much like lab grown meats, the challenge is to create an end product that is nutritious and has a taste, texture and appearance that consumers are familiar with.
“In order to grow a piece of food that is desirable to eat, we will need more than just a collection of cells. So we are also investigating approaches that are likely to deliver a fresh food eating experience.”
“The aim isn’t to try and completely replicate a piece of fruit that’s grown in the traditional way, but rather create a new food with equally appealing properties.”
As well as exploring the viability of cellular horticulture as a future tool for food production, Dr Schon says the research also aims to provide better understanding of fruit cell behavior – these insights could help breed better fruit varieties that would also benefit the traditional growing methods being used by New Zealand’s horticultural sector.
This cellular horticulture research fits within Plant & Food Research’s Hua Ki Te Ao – Horticulture Goes Urban Growing Futures™ Direction, which is focused on developing new plants and growing systems that will bring food production closer to urban consumers.
“Globally, we are seeing rapid growth in both the vertical farming, controlled environment growing as well as cell-cultured meat spaces. It’s possible that cell-cultured plant foods could be a solution to urban population growth, with requirements for secure and safe food supply chains close to these urbanised markets,” says direction co-leader Dr Samantha Baldwin.
Plant & Food Research scientists and collaborators from the USA have compiled more than 30 years of field-based data from kiwifruit research to create “digital twins” of pollination processes in kiwifruit orchards, and have used these to predict how growers can optimise their fruit set.
Digital twins are virtual replicas of physical systems – in this case mathematical models of the biology of the plants and the behaviour of pollinating bees. These digital twins give researchers the ability to examine complex scenarios which examine multiple, intertwined factors at once. These types of trials are difficult or impossible to test in field – running a full combination of even six variables would require more kiwifruit orchards than exist in New Zealand.
Using this digital twin, the researchers predict that optimal fruit set is achieved with 60-75 % female flowers in the orchard; something that growers can achieve by select pruning of male flowers. Most pollination benefit is gained from the first 6-8 honey bees/1000 flowers, with diminishing returns thereafter. The research suggests that fruiting success is more sensitive to variation in plant traits and the female-to-male flower ratio than bee density, provided this minimum density is achieved.
Dr David Pattemore, pollination scientist at Plant & Food Research and leader of the research team, says, “This digital twin allows us to achieve something we couldn’t have done before – simultaneous testing of the plant-based factors and the pollinator-based factors. It now provides us with a platform to test many more questions and develop recommendations for growers that can be confirmed in field trials.
“The prediction should give kiwifruit growers confidence that what they have been practicing is more or less on the right track. The model provides strategies for improving crop management, such as selection of male and female cultivars which have their peak bloom at the same time, establishing the right balance of female to male flowers in the orchard and placing the sufficient numbers of hives to maintain more than 6 bees per 1000 flowers in the orchard to optimise yield.”
The project is part of a wider programme to develop digital twins for pollination, using a range of different modelling approaches to investigate how different pollination factors interact and influence kiwifruit production. Although initially designed to investigate honey bees pollinating kiwifruit vines, the models can be adapted to suit a wide range of crop species and pollinators. The team is currently working to scale up the model to investigate more complex questions such as the influence of diverse pollinator species and the effect of the spatial layout of orchards. These digital twins could potentially be used as the foundation for the development of decision support tools for growers, to guide their orchard and pollination management to optimise yields.
Consumers across the world may soon be experiencing tastier, fuller-sized blueberries year-round, thanks to a new breeding partnership in blueberries that will bring premium quality berries to customers across the world.
Plant & Food Research and global fresh produce company T&G Global have announced they are entering into a new agreement to breed and commercialise exciting new varieties of blueberries to be sold globally.
The breeding programme will produce new varieties of blueberry that will provide improved yield and resistance to disease while also delivering consumers larger, tastier berries over a longer period, with an extended harvest season.
The first new commercial varieties could be launched globally in the next 12 months under T&G Global’s Orchard Rd brand.
“Blueberries are a key strategic play for us in building our global portfolio, and we’re delighted to build another global category to emulate the success of our premium apple brands. We know there is strong consumer demand for blueberries and teaming up with Plant & Food Research means we get access to a pipeline of world-class varieties,” says Gareth Edgecombe, CEO of T&G Global.
“Securing exclusive rights to the best varieties is the first step in our strategy to build multiple global verticals that drive and enable value and add demand through strong consumer brands,” he says.
The new partnership builds on an existing agreement that grants the global fresh produce grower and marketer, T&G Global, access to a suite of Plant & Food Research-bred and licensed blueberry varieties for production in Australia.
“Plant & Food Research and T&G Global have a strong relationship that began at their legacy organisations in the 1990s,” says David Hughes, CEO Plant & Food Research.
“T&G has an excellent track record of commercialising our varieties, most notably the apples branded JAZZ™ and Envy™. We are looking forward to continuing building on this history and delivering excellent blueberries for New Zealand and global consumers,” he says.