Stoneless avocados or seedless grapes, watermelons and mandarins are becoming everyday products on supermarket shelves. They are the latest additions to a list that continues to grow, and which shows that improving the productivity and marketing conditions are no longer the only factors behind the search for new plant varieties; the demands from consumers play an ever greater role.
In the last three years alone, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Environment (Mapama) has registered 1,225 new plant varieties. Of these, 105 are protected, meaning that their marketing is subject to the payment of royalties to the companies breeding or licensing them.
The Spanish fruit and vegetable sector has been opening up to the introduction of new plant material motivated by competition. "15 years ago, the European market was practically exclusive to Spain. With the progressive entry into production of the countries of the Mediterranean arc and the opening to imports of countries from other hemispheres during the off-season, the market became saturated, making it necessary to program the production and look to fill the gaps in the market, which is when the demand for a given product cannot be covered," explains Rafael Grau, president of the Association of Vegetable Operators, linked to Asaja Valencia.
For example, the clementine mandarin campaign (Clemenules) comes to an end in late January and then the demand has to be covered with hybrid varieties, such as the Tango or Orri, which also face little competition from other countries, explains this expert.
In this process of searching for new varieties, large distributors have been playing an increasingly important role. "In the case of citrus fruits, it doesn't matter how many organoleptic qualities the fruit has, it also needs to meet other requirements: that it can be produced well, that it can be peeled well, that it can be easily transported and that it can stay on the shelves for two or three weeks without any skin problems. Large retailers market 90% of the production and they prefer purchasing varieties that guarantee a steady supply for three or four months and which does not cause problems on the shelves," says Grau.
However, the role of the last link in the chain, the consumer, is also becoming more and more important. It is no longer enough to have access to a product all year round, they also demand homogeneity in colour, shape and size, and everything that entails a greater ease of consumption, as is the case of mandarins or seedless grapes, explains Carlos Baixauli, head for Agrosustainability at the Cajamar experimental centres in Valencia and Almeria.
Enhancing the flavour
The latest trend is enhancing the flavour. "Genetic improvements have been made to obtain a long-lasting product, which would make it easier to reach international markets. This has made it possible to have a good material for export, but has also led to losses in terms of taste, and that's what seed houses are aiming to solve at this time," explains Baixauli.
The European seed market generates about 7,000 million Euro per year; of this, 39% corresponds to cereals and legumes, 26% to corn, 14% to potatoes and 11% to horticultural crops. Although the majority of seed companies are multinationals, more and more companies are operating in Spain, setting up their own headquarters there, reports the National Association of Vegetable Producers (Anove). The companies devoted to the development of new seeds allocate between 20 and 25% of their turnover to R+D+i.
The dynamism in Spain is clear, and a number of important Spanish companies have signed agreements with American, European or Israeli universities to obtain the license of new varieties, which they register as protected and then market in Europe.
The marketing of new varieties has also attracted the interest of the producer associations, who manage to obtain the license of new plant materials for their later marketing with protective measures. Just a few days ago, for instance, the seedless mandarin Mandanova was launched in Valencia.
Now a club will manage its growth by limiting its production and preventing its illegal use. "It is the way to avoid an excess of supply and ensure that the prices guarantee profitability for the producer," explains Grau.