If proof is needed of climate change and rising global temperatures, look no further than the humble red apple – which New Zealand scientists are on a mission to save.
The warming climate's influence on red apples was detected as long ago as 2002, the culprit of a profound effect on the colour and texture of the world's most popular apples.
Dr Richard Volz, an apple breeder at Crown Research Institute Plant & Food Research, says: "We were visiting colleagues in northern Spain in the early 2000s and realised local growers were having issues with their apple harvests, due to the high summer temperatures. The apples never quite coloured up right; they didn't have the crunch we would normally expect."
So Plant & Food Research, working with Spanish counterparts, developed the Hot Climate Programme (HCP) – from which the first apple variety, known as 'HOT84A1', has been released to growers worldwide for planting in areas of hot (and rising) temperatures.
The development of hot climate apples means the threat to the red apple may be averted, says Volz: "The hotter temperatures mean the red colour of traditional varieties does not develop as it should. The texture goes soft – and doesn't give you that famously crunchy feel."
That red colour is a strong marketing element in Asian and most other markets round the world so the first release from the HCP is an important development – not just for apple businesses and eaters but also for New Zealand's reputation as leading the way with new apple and pear varieties that can be grown worldwide and sell for a premium price.
The new red apple – which has an intensely red colour and a very crisp and juicy texture – has been licensed for grower testing in New Zealand, South Africa, Europe, the UK and Australia. The first commercial plantings of trees will begin early next year in Spain – though consumers will have to wait to taste the apples until the trees have produced fruit around three years later.
"Breeding fruit is a long-term effort from many different teams of scientists," says Volz. "A new commercial variety is the culmination of years of testing to make sure we have a tree that produces fruit people want to eat, that we can grow and store the fruit in a way that will make sure the eating experience is consistent, and that growers can manage their orchards appropriately.
"It's part of what we call ensuring a "smart, green future for New Zealand."
The new apple – like all the commercial fruit varieties developed by Plant & Food Research – is developed by interbreeding trees, not genetic modification (GM).
It will also have a big effect on New Zealand apple growing as temperatures rise here, says T&G Global's Head of Innovation & Technical, Morgan Rogers – T&G being the former Turners & Growers which also incorporates ENZA.
T&G has joined Plant & Food Research, Spanish counterparts IRTA and Spanish growers Fruit Futur as the global strategic commercialisation partner for the HCP and Rogers says: "The HCP is unique and addresses both climate change mitigation and adaptation. So not only will we be able to grow fruit globally in areas where temperatures are rising, we can also potentially extend into new regions previously not suitable for apple and pear growing."
In New Zealand, that means places with notoriously long hot summers may now be able to add high quality pip fruit to their horticulture portfolio, while traditional apple growing regions will be able to keep sustainably producing quality fruit as the climate changes.
New Zealand has a strong track record of developing new, premium apple and pear varieties that can be grown worldwide. More than 25 per cent of New Zealand's $800 million of apple exports are Plant & Food Research-bred varieties. They bring higher prices than traditional varieties like Braeburn and Royal Gala, which formed the majority of the industry's production 15 years ago.
This isn't the first time T&G has commercialised Plant & Food Research apple varieties. In the early 2000s, Plant & Food Research licensed one of their apple varieties called 'Scifresh' to ENZA, now part of T&G. These trees are now grown worldwide under management by T&G with the fruit marketed under the Jazz apple brand. More than 110,000 tonnes of Jazz are sold each year around the world. In 2012, Envy apples, produced from another Plant & Food Research variety, called 'Scilate', hit the supermarket shelves through a similar relationship with T&G.
Watch here for more information on the HCP
More recent pip fruit varieties from Plant & Food Research's New Zealand-based breeding programme are commercialised through Prevar Limited, a joint venture with New Zealand Apples & Pears and Apple & Pear Australia – including apples under brands like Smitten, Rockit, Lemonade and Dazzle and the new category of Asian-European hybrid pears marketed under the Piqa brand.
"New Zealand has high costs for fruit production compared to other countries," says Volz. "We have a good reputation for low environmental impact and high quality – and new varieties give New Zealand another point of difference in the marketplace.
"Through these, we can achieve the premium prices needed to make fruit production profitable for everyone involved. In addition, New Zealand marketers can license production to growers in the northern hemisphere for a fee, not only providing more income back to New Zealand from those varieties but also making sure consumers can make a habit of purchasing the fruit all year round."