Flavour Back on Agenda

M. Da Silva - Good Fruit & Vegetables 8/1/2012

A return to breeding for flavour is a welcome change for American tomato breeder, Dough Heath.

Mr Heath visited Townsville in June to meet with growers and Australian colleagues.

Based at the main research hub for Monsanto's vegetable division, in Woodland, California, Mr Heath has worked with the company for 20 years and was involved in the introduction of the Pinnacle variety.

"The main traits we're working on are disease resistance traits," he said. "That's where we're really at right now. Our big hybrid here of course is Pinnacle and that came on the scene a lithe over a decade ago.

"Pinnacle brought an important disease resistance, which is resistance to fusarian wilt, race III. Now, I've added some important new virus resistances. One of the most important probably is tomato yellow leaf curl virus."

Monsanto treats Australia as a separate market because of its market size, but Mr Heath is able to draw on Monsanto's global collection of germplasm to introduce desirable traits, such as disease resistance.

Mr Heath said when they had a new disease resistance and were starting from scratch, often they had to go back to the wild ancestors of the tomatoes and it took a long time.

"But we were fortunate with these two viruses. We've already had them working in other areas of the world and so we simply intergressed those into the Pinnacle background," he said.

As well as discussing Pinnacle with growers, Mr Heath also talked with them about a new pre-commercial hybrid called 215 that additionally had resistance to tomato spotted wilt virus.

"Two-one-five (215) has the fusarian race III resistance like Pinnacle but it also has tomato yellow leaf curl and tomato spotted wilt viruses. It's like a double-whammy of virus resistance in there."

Mr Heath said diseases could appear in different parts of the world at the same time. Tomato yellow leaf curl virus, for example, started showing up "all over the place" in the past few years.

"For example, in Hawaii, which is not a big tomato market but it's also a market that I deal with because it's in my zone, the tomato yellow leaf curl showed up, same thing, maybe three or four years ago and the growers started asking for it."

Fruit quality is also something that Monsanto prioritises. "Not only with 215, but there's some new followups that I have coming behind it which I'm going to be looking at trials this week where we really set the bar high for ourselves. Pinnacle has tremendously good fruit quality and we're just not going to accept a lesser quality just to have the resistances in there."

Mr Heath said that a trait that was of personal interest for him was fruit flavour. For me, having been doing this for about 20 years, it's very refreshing to me that flavour is now finally a focus," Mr Heath said.

"Our customers are basically tomato growers (and) tomato shippers. For many years the primary thing was to make these things as hard as a rock, like a baseball; you could throw it against the wall and not have damage. We've done a great job on that but I think along the way, sometimes we ignored flavour. Now consumers are getting a much bigger variety of tomatoes in the retail than even was the case 10 years ago."

While the handling system in the past favoured picking fruit green, Mr Heath said that nowadays there was pressure "to go more vine-ripe" because that is what consumers were asking for.

"The nice outcome of it is you get more vineripe material in the market ... Pinnacle is of course an excellent vine-ripe tomato. And that raises the bar. Then people say, 'Why would I want this tasteless thing, I've got a very tasty thing. Give me something as tasty or even more tasty'."

Mr Heath said he had an heirloom tomato hybrid program going "for about the last 15 years" and that Monsanto was close to releasing some of that material on a commercial basis.