As basil demand in the U.S. has continued to grow over the past decade, so has an increasing threat to basil availability – downy mildew. Now, three herb pioneers have teamed up to develop and introduce a downy mildew resistant basil variety to the marketplace.
Jim Simon, a distinguished professor of plant biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey and one of the country’s foremost plant breeders and scientists, Charlie Coiner, an herb industry pioneer, grower, and marketer, and Ed Van Drunen, retired president at Van Drunen Farms (VDF Specialty Seeds) in Momence, Illinois, a basil grower and seed propagator, as well as other academic collaborators, have achieved a commercially viable downy mildew “resistant” variety to offer growers.
Though Simon uses the term “resistant”, he also cautions there is no 100 percent foolproof resistance. “Having a ‘resistant’ plant doesn't mean you won’t ever have the disease,” he explains. “But in general, it means it will allow a plant to have a greater ability to resist the disease. What we were aiming to develop is a plant that will sufficiently grow without concern about symptomology during the growing and harvest season and as such we are talking about degrees of tolerance not only resistance.”
Simon and his colleagues have applied for a patent for the downy mildew “resistant” varieties and the seeds are now commercially available through VDF Specialty Seeds. “Compared to anything else out there it’s phenomenal,” says Simon. “We have developed over a dozen new sweet basils with now four new sweet basils being introduced into commercial marketplace.”
The actual selection of the final lines being released were decided using a participatory approach with commercial basil farmers in the U.S. and EU who each rated the new lines relative to their needs and acceptability. “We have a number of beautiful large sweet basil types with great aroma, high yield and so far, can be grown and harvested with no disease symptoms in comparison to other commercial lines side by side which show significant downy mildew injury,” says Simon. “These lines are not immune- but are resistant. Additional lines are already on the horizon.”
Simon also clarifies the team did not use GMO or any transgenic techniques. “We just did creative old fashioned-style plant breeding,” he says. “Developing this has taken seven years of intense work,” says Simon. “It was mostly done at Rutgers, but also with collaboration from Cornell University, the University of Florida, the University of Massachusetts and many commercial growers all over the country.”
Simon eventually linked up with Coiner to collaborate, as Simon wanted private industry to support field trials and look at the commercial aspects of the project. Coiner’s vast experience with herbs and particularly basil made him a perfect fit for the project.
Ed Van Drunen (left) & Charlie Coiner (right)
According to a report from Cornell University, downy mildew of basil is a destructive disease confirmed in both field- and greenhouse-grown basil crops (as well as home gardens) now found in many states including Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Kansas and Missouri. The pathogen develops on lower leaf surfaces and pretty much renders complete crop loss for growers because leaves with any injury are unmarketable and inedible.
Coiner explains the parasitic-type disease strips the energy and food from the plant. “It reduces the amount of harvest and shortens the shelf life once it’s been harvested,” he says. “It is a really devastating disease with few options. And, unfortunately it comes at a time when consumer demand for basil is at an all-time high and continues to grow.”
Coiner became increasingly concerned about the downy mildew issue as he saw its affects on the industry. He points to New Jersey statistics as an indication of how the disease impacted basil production. “Five years ago, 28 farmers in New Jersey listed themselves as commercial producers of basil but in 2016 only two did,” he says. “The costs and hassle of dealing with downy mildew are taking a toll.”
A new resistant variety would result in real cost savings for basil growers. “The cost of trying to keep downy mildew out is expensive,” says Van Drunen. “A resistant variety would eliminate the cost of spraying on conventional basil and would be particularly crucial for organic basil.”
For more information:
Van Drunen Farms
Tel: +1 (760) 485-5805