Technology's role in Scottish berry production

How technology has benefited the soft-fruit industry

The soft fruit industry in Scotland has long benefited from the appliance of science. Nicki Holmyard looks at the technology keeping Scottish berries in juicy good health.

Summer time is soft fruit time, and we all take for granted that a plentiful supply of ripe, juicy berries will be available for picking. Few people probably give a thought to the challenges that the Scottish climate presents in producing it, yet more than 70 per cent of the UK’s soft fruit is grown in Tayside.

Scotland’s raspberry crop alone is worth £12 million a year, and the blackcurrant crop £0.79 million (though this value rises significantly once processed). To keep competitive, up-to-date and attuned to the demands of the modern market, Scottish fruit farmers rely heavily on the help of scientific expertise and developments in research. The Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) in Invergowrie, Dundee, has been researching crops and providing advice to growers since 1950. Its commercial subsidiary, Mylnefield Research Services (MRS), was founded in 1989; it is a world-leading research centre for produce including soft fruit, and runs breeding programmes to develop new varieties.

Their Glen Ample raspberry is the most popular in the UK, while the Glen Lyon variety is the mainstay of the Spanish industry. Nearly all – 98 per cent – of UK and half of all world blackberries come from Invergowrie. In 2011 the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute is due to merge with the SCRI, which the organisations say will bring greater benefits to the industry.

Nikki Jennings, a raspberry breeder at MRS, works closely with the industry to breed new cultivars (cultivated plants with desirable characteristics) of raspberries and blackberries. Each new variety takes a minimum of 15 years to perfect. ‘The current focus of our work is the fresh market, but when SCRI began, the Scottish raspberry industry mainly supplied fruit for processing, jam making and canning. We developed the first spine-free cultivars to facilitate machine-picking, and have kept that trait in our breeding programmes ever since, because it is also better for handpicking,’ Jennings explains.

In the 1980s the industry went into decline as a result of competition from Eastern Europe, compounded by problems with raspberry root rot. Extensive research has since been carried out into the problem.

In the late 1990s the industry faced another challenge, when supermarkets started demanding that their fresh fruit be pesticide-free and available for an extended season, as well as having large berries, good flavour and appearance and a long shelf-life. To achieve this, Scottish growers had to turn their production systems around, bringing back hand-harvesting and introducing polythene tunnels.

Meanwhile, researchers stepped up research into disease-resistant strains and improved quality, and Julie Graham, a geneticist with the SCRI, developed molecular markers for these traits. According to Dr Graham, ‘This work is very exciting because it will help speed up our breeding programme, make it more targeted and focused, and help Scottish fruit growers cope better with the next challenge that nature throws at them.

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