New disease-resistant crops make it possible to meet consumer demands

Years ago, farmers had limited options for growing crops so consumer demand didn’t influence much. If people wanted strawberries out of season, they just had to wait. Farmers had to grow crops suited to their region and climate. They could create a greenhouse to control temperature, but they had to skip the crops they knew would be destroyed by disease and pests.

Fruits, vegetables, and grains are particular about where and how they grow. Certain crops thrive in specific growing regions while other crops wouldn’t stand a chance in the same place. The environment in the soil is as important as the local climate and daily weather. Too much rain will lead to sprouts that can rot corn; dry and cold weather won’t produce hearty grains; the wrong location can cause diseases and attract insects.

Today, increasing consumer demand has forced scientists to engineer built-in protection within the seed itself. It’s now possible to create seed variations (of the same crop) that will thrive in varying environments. For example, a chart published by Pioneer shows twelve variations of corn that vary by everything from grain yield, dryland adaptability, height, husk cover, and disease resistance. Farmers now have the ability to choose the seed variation that will perform best under their specific conditions.

In ancient times, a diseased crop hurt the farmer, his or her family, and a portion of the community. Now a diseased crop hurts the world. It’s impossible to make every crop entirely destruction-proof. However, thanks to technological advances, crops are now being grown in areas they would never grow in before, which help to meet consumer demand.

Growing hazelnuts in New Jersey?

For hundreds of years, farmers tried to grow hazelnuts East of the Rocky Mountains and failed. The reason? A fungus called Eastern filbert blight disease would kill the hazelnut trees.

Hazelnuts are in high demand and often short supply. The demand is due in part to the fact that Nutella uses 25% of the world’s hazelnut and Ferrero Rochet uses Nutella in their world-famous chocolates.

Thomas Molnar, a plant biologist from Rutgers, spent 22 years studying hazelnuts and finally discovered a solution to grow them East of the Rockies. Molnar and his team collected 10,000 hazelnut tree seeds to begin research many years ago. His research farm at Rutgers houses about 5,000 hazelnut trees, and 150 trees are completely disease-free. The disease-resistant trees originated from 65 different seed lots collected from across the world.

“The big thing is that we have resistance to this disease, and we don’t just have one source of resistance – we have many,” Molnar told North Jersey. “Were not just relying on one gene – we have many genes, and we actually have different hazelnut species, so we have a really wide foundation.”

All it took was a different species of hazelnut with an innate resistance to the fungus to give New Jersey farmers a chance to make a living growing hazelnuts.

Blight-resistant chestnuts in Virginia

A clever couple from Virginia decided to plant a 46-acre chestnut orchard to pay for their retirement instead of buying into a 401(k). Chestnuts had been a native tree in their region for hundreds of years, but few farmers were growing them. In the 1940s, the same fungus that kills hazelnut trees wiped out the chestnut orchards in their area.

Chestnuts aren’t easy to grow, but the couple planted 1,600 trees and so far, they’re disease-free. They have a steady, wholesale clientele. They began selling about 7,000 pounds per year, but that figure has now doubled.

High-yield perennial crops are the next big thing

Another way farmers are working to meet consumer demand is by engineering perennial crops. Perennial crops are crops that don’t need to be planted every year. Although perennials reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff, they generally have lower yields.

The Land Institute – a nonprofit dedicated to reducing destructive farming practices – has created perennial varieties of wheat, legumes, and sorghum. These crops can be harvested for multiple years without soil cultivation. Root systems are maintained year-round, which means less soil erosion. Now the engineers are working on increasing the yields. It’s a massive investment due to the uncertainties and commercial viability, but all on board say it’s worth the risk.

Consumer demand is satisfied by importing

If you’ve been wondering why produce like avocados and hazelnuts are so expensive, consider that they aren’t grown locally. Making disease-resistant crops that can grow in any zone will not only meet consumer demand, but could bring down the cost of your favorite fruits and veggies.



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