The fruits of climate change

posted in: Food | 8
Zaiger pluot whole and sliced.
Zaiger pluot, courtesy of BMRR on Wikipedia.

The other day I found myself looking through the plant patents held by the Zaiger’s Genetics team. The Zaigers, a family of plant breeders led by a UC Davis Plant Pathology graduate, have developed some very cool fruits. You may know of the pluot, and apparently they have a peach with low acid that has taken the world by storm. They have developed many plants with important and beneficial characteristics besides taste – but they taste great too.

I know some people dislike patents, but I have no objection to people who have developed these novel plants having patents on them. But considering what it takes to breed wonderful fruit tree varieties like these, you can understand why these patents exist.

Zaiger’s Genetics has been breeding fruit trees for decades, with many interesting successes. For some background on Floyd Zaiger a fruit innovator to the world and his family that continues this work, there was a great article in SFGate last year. One fruit they describe in that article is a hybridized nectarine popular in Spain:

One of Zaiger’s hybridized nectarines grown in Spain can mature 10 days ahead of anything else in Europe – “so they have a market almost all to themselves,” he says. That 10-day difference can make or break a country’s fruit industry.

Lately, some people have been objecting to the use of hybrid crops, but I don’t have a problem with it. Early maturing fruit can have financial benefits as we see here – but in a time of climate change, shifting the maturity rates could be a really important strategy.

The Zaiger Genetics team has developed a huge number of useful fruits. One article some years back on Designer Fruit described some others:

Among his achievements, Zaiger, 78, has found a way to reduce the acid level in peaches, give unripe apricots an appealing red blush, and make white nectarines—previously a mushy mess—firm enough to be shipped around the world.

Firmness for shipping may not be your favorite characteristic, but if farmers can’t get fruits to customers that is a problem. And the fewer fruits lost in transit, the better. Reducing food waste is something worthwhile.

So shifting maturation – to either earlier or later, as the Zaigers have accomplished – is valuable. Texture and shipping characteristics also benefit farmers and consumers. There’s a list of other types of features on the Dave Wilson Nursery (the Zaiger’s distributor) that are under investigation. Cool stuff.

But the particular piece that struck me last week was one specifically about one of the recent patents that was issued. It’s on a cherry called Royal Tioga, selected for fruit that ripens early and is large. It seems to me this could be a great idea not only to extend the range of this tree – but considering these times of climate change it might be beneficial to bloom and fruit earlier to potentially avoid temperatures that are too high or conditions that are too dry. There may be other plants that could require other shifts for other locations, or maybe survive wetter situations.

In a post at Txchnologist, Michael Keller reported on this new patent, and talked to the Zaiger team. Txchnical Improvements: Onward, Cherry Development! The work that went into this was described by Floyd’s daughter Leith:

“It took 45 years of sorting through the junk offspring to find the seedlings that took us where we wanted to go,” says Gardner. “Ninety-nine percent of them didn’t have the qualities we were looking for.”

The Zaiger team uses only conventional breeding strategies. That’s completely fine – I would never withhold techniques or strategies from folks who want to use them. Although once they did experiment with something else:

He once zapped some of his plants with an X-ray machine to see if he could cause their mutation. Another time he stormed into his greenhouse with a hammer and pounded some of his buds—hoping to shock them into spontaneous change. (Neither experiment worked.)

Ok, so percussive genetics didn’t pan out. That said, I have seen a plant made with ultrasound, so it’s not entirely unlikely to work…

But focus on the time and the rate for this one cherry: conventional breeding by the top specialists in this field took 45 years, with a 99% failure rate. The Designer Fruit article also notes:

It’s not unusual for him to wait more than 15 years to make money from a new variety. After nearly three decades of working on the peacotum, Zaiger hasn’t seen any revenue from it. “It’s not get-rich-quick,” he says.

Because of those economics, his company spent about 30 years in the red, though it is now profitable.

Don’t get me wrong – I think the Zaiger’s Genetics work is heroic. But I wonder if we have that kind of time in a changing climate, and if other breeders who might want to work on this can persist in the kind of economy we have today. And I wonder if people who want to withhold certain plant technologies – some that might speed up our abilities to shift fruiting or adapt to changed conditions – from plant scientists really understand that. Finally, shouldn’t someone like the Zaigers who spend many long decades to develop a new and useful fruit be able to patent what they have done so they can stay in business?

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Mary Mangan PhD is a genomics scientist, with credentials in microbiology, immunology, plant cell biology, and mammalian cell, developmental, and molecular biology. All comments here are my own, and do not represent my company or any other company.