8 September 2021 News
Every year, Enza Zaden and its subsidiary Vitalis Organic Seeds present their latest vegetable varieties to growers, processors and traders during the Summer Field Days. This year, pumpkins are getting special attention. The versatile crop wins over hearts and fills store shelves, in part due to both companies’ efforts. Good flavour is essential to increasing market growth, according to Anne Marie Schoevaars (Expert Researcher Post-harvest & Consumer Sciences in the Netherlands) and Pauline Kerbiriou (Crop Breeding Manager in New Zealand).
Flavour is a complex characteristic, and how we experience it is partly culturally determined. This poses more than a few challenges. All the more so, given that Enza Zaden/Vitalis’s pumpkin and squash breeding programme covers the full range of this varied crop group. "We recognise fifteen different types of pumpkin and squash of commercial interest”, says Pauline Kerbiriou. "A separate breeding programme has been set up for each type. The programmes are spread over six breeding teams in Europe, India, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand. They each follow their own plan, but they also work together very closely.”
The trial fields for the complete programme are located in the Netherlands, France, Australia and New Zealand, and the teams meet twice a year for evaluations; when the pumpkin season starts in Oceania (March) and when it starts in Europe (September). Specialists from the head office in Enkhuizen provide support for specific knowledge areas. "I think our broad-based, unique approach partly explains our success in the past five years", Kerbiriou says. "A lot of progress has been made, also in terms of flavour."
Flavour is an extremely complex phenomenon. As with melons, sugar content plays a role, but it is much more than that. "Flavour involves many characteristics, such as firmness and fibre structure, mealiness, juiciness, sugar content and sugar balance, intensity and the presence of specific aromatic substances", notes Anne Marie Schoevaars. The expression of these traits in a type or variety is partly genetically determined, but the precise (multigene) relationships are very difficult to determine. The cultivation method, climate, soil type ('terroir') and shelf life also affect aspects of flavour.
In the end, it is the consumer who decides if a product is tasty or not. Flavour preferences are partly determined by culture, so it is important to take that into account. Schoevaars: “We want to gain insight into this, of course, which is why we are presenting existing and new varieties to consumer panels in several countries. We do that a few times a year so we can see if a variety or a programme with multiple varieties remains consistent throughout the year. Ideally, after the harvest, there is still a slight improvement in flavour, and that flavour – along with other characteristics that are relevant to the trade channel – is then retained for a very long time. A delicious pumpkin or squash with a long shelf life is what growers and traders like to see. That's what we're all working on."
The data that Schoevaars and her colleagues consistently collect are important not only to the breeders. Retailers also want to make well-founded choices about the products and varieties they put on their shelves. Good flavour promotes repeat purchases and a turnover rate that benefits the profit per (linear or square) meter of shelf space.
The growing popularity of pumpkin and squash varieties in Europe (mainly Hokkaido and butternut types) is partly due to the success of the Hokkaido Orange Summer introduced more than a decade ago, which excels in numerous characteristics. Among them: its outstanding flavour. Also within other types, varieties have recently been developed that are especially impressive in terms of flavour, or that simply perform well and have an edge over the competition for other reasons. Kerbiriou and her close colleagues are happy to keep working with them, of course, to keep expanding and improving the portfolio for that type.
But types are also crossed with each other to obtain or strengthen specific traits, such as disease resistance. "Cross-breeding is not unusual, and we may make more intensive use of it than others do, thanks to our broad programme", the senior breeder says. "The extensive data collection and new breeding techniques also allow us to make targeted choices in this regard. But flavour remains a complex phenomenon that we cannot yet attribute entirely to specific genes. If you ask me if cross-breeding contributes positively to the flavour of our breeds, my answer is: undoubtedly, but I don’t know how exactly. Maybe one day we can unravel that, but the main thing is that we’re able to breed delicious pumpkins and squash with an excellent practical value for the entire chain."
In order to be able to offer consumers pumpkins and squash year-round that consistently score high on relevant purchase criteria (including flavour), several varieties that complement each other are usually needed. Looking back on what has happened in the last five years, we have to conclude that Enza Zaden/Vitalis has made huge progress. The squash and pumpkin breeding programme is broader and better than ever, giving growers and traders more choices among high-quality varieties that will appeal to consumers.