A Look at the Landscape for the Fruit, Nut and Vegetable Market

in the Next Decade

Peggy G. Lemaux
Department of Plant and Microbial Biology

University of California, Berkeley


       Have you looked on the shelves of your favorite supermarket lately? The variety of fresh produce items being carried by U.S. retailers doubled from 1987 to 1998. Why? Consumers' awareness of the value of eating fruits and vegetables and, in fact, their consumption of fruits and vegetables has increased dramatically. The Five- A-Day program, initiated in the early 1990Ős in the U.S., was a factor in increasing public awareness of the value of eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. It emphasizes the importance of the vitamins, minerals, nutrients and phytochemicals that are present in these foods.

       Consumers have turned to calcium-fortified orange juice in large numbers to bolster calcium intake during both the formative years and during later years to alleviate symptoms of osteoporosis. Manufacturers of cereals and whole grain products make claims of improved health if you eat their foods. Naturally occurring products in broccoli have certain anti-cancer properties. Compounds have been identified in grapes and many other foods that serve as very strong antioxidants; compounds in blueberries are purported to improve memory loss. Databases are being created by the United States Department of Agriculture to track natural products in foods that people might find beneficial. For example, they track the amounts of isoflavones in every food imaginable so this information can be used to guide dietary choices. Other databases look at other compounds that health professionals now consider important to human health. So in some ways foods can be viewed as medicines and this might drive increased consumption.

         What does this all mean? I believe it means that people will be looking more and more to their foods to help them create a healthier lifestyle. And certainly, for the reasons just stated, one of the cornerstones of this new, healthier diet will be fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables. Indeed fruits and vegetables contain many promising phytochemicals and the levels of these compounds can be altered to increase their effects. These changes can be accomplished through alterations in processing, shipping, storing and, yes, genetics. The latter might be accomplished through the new molecular tools that permit marker-assisted breeding which allow the efficient introduction of traits from distantly related species. Alternatively, this can occur through the application of biotechnology, which can boost levels of preexisting nutrients or can introduce new information from other living organisms.

Nutritionally Enhanced Products Reach the Marketplace

       Why this new interest in natural products in foods? For years, folk remedies, often based on natural products, have been used to enhance health and treat ills. But often these products are not widely accepted by the U.S. medical community. Recently, however, through more sophisticated biochemistry and genetics, it has been possible to identify some of the compounds suspected of causing the beneficial (and sometimes detrimental) effects. These were subsequently tested under a variety of different conditions to confirm their biomedical effects, leading to a new era of health-enhancing products, including foods, the efficacy of which has been validated by scientific scrutiny and thus are more widely accepted by consumers.

       Some of these ŇhealthierÓ foods were developed through classical breeding methods. This can include foods with increased nutrient content, such as the Lyco-mato, that has high levels of lycopene, a strong antioxidant. Foods can also be altered to stay fresher longer or ship with less damage. Foods can have new characteristics, such as corn that comes in all colors or broccoflower that comes from crossing cauliflower and broccoli. These changes come about either by inducing or identifying a new mutation, which can cause, for example, the changes in corn kernel pigmentation, or by mixing the genetic information from two parents, like broccoli and cauliflower.

       Other changes in nutritional content may come about from the method of cultivation. Many people believe that organically produced fruits and vegetables, grown in the U.S. under certain standards specified by the government, are nutritionally superior to those produced using classical methods of cultivation. There is some published evidence that certain organically produced foods have higher contents of certain minerals, like Mg++ in sweet corn. Although other nutritional improvements have not been scientifically validated, many people believe that foods produced using this technology are nutritionally superior and prefer to eat these foods based on these perceptions.

       One technology that can take advantage of our new biochemical and genetic knowledge about food crops to change the characteristics of fruits, nuts and vegetables is biotechnology. The use of this technology will manifest itself in two ways, from indirect use of these technologies to facilitate classical breeding efforts and from its direct use to introduce new genetic information to, for instance, up-regulate pathways to increase the synthesis of a particular vitamin.

       Researchers have talked about the "promise of biotechnology" for almost two decades, but there are still few products in the marketplace, which result from the use of this technology. A little later I will go into the reasons why this is so. In the beginning stages of this technologyŐs application in 1994, the first wave of products were fruits and vegetables and they were introduced into pilot test markets in the U.S. These included:

á      Vine-ripened tomatoes with extended shelf life (FlavrSavr and Endless Summer varieties);

á      Yellow crookneck squash with resistance to several devastating viruses (Freedom II varieties);

á      Higher solids tomatoes to produce lower cost tomato sauces and paste;

á      Potatoes with resistance to certain viruses and insects; and

á      Virus-resistant papaya grown in Hawaii where the virus had devastated production.

       Of these products only the papaya remains in the market in the U.S.; some 70% of papayas sold in U.S. markets are engineered for resistance to papaya ringspot virus. The others products disappeared for a variety of reasons, including poor marketing strategies, patent infringements, lackluster performance and reluctance of food producers to market these food products because of fears of consumer backlash.

       In contrast to the fate of these engineered fruit and vegetable crops, large-acreage crops like soybeans, corn, cotton and more recently canola have captured a significant proportion of acreage in the U.S. In 2002, 75% of soybean acreage, 71% of cotton, 32% of corn and 54% of canola acreage was planted with varieties developed through biotechnology. In fact the proportion of acreage has increased nearly every year since the introduction of these varieties in 1996. Because oil, e.g., cottonseed, corn and canola, and meal, e.g., corn, soy and cottonseed, from these crops is present in many foods, the percentage of foods containing one of these ingredients is high, by some estimates 75% of processed foods in the U.S.

       What has led to the rapid adoption of these crops? According to the Farm Bureau, this adoption by farmers was not likely because of increased yields, since many of these crops already have significant surpluses. It is rather the increased ease of management and the lowering of chemical input costs - through fewer applications of herbicides and pesticides.

Advances in Biotechnology Raise Important Questions

       Revolutionary discoveries in genetics in the 1970's and 80's fueled these dramatic changes in agriculture and stimulated entrepreneurial excitement and investment in biotechnology. What are these tools? How are they used in vegetable breeding? What are the benefits and limitations of these new technologies? How will they affect the vegetable industry and the consumer? Will the consumer accept them? Who regulates these products? I can't answer all of these questions but I will try to address as many as possible as time permits.

How Does Classical Breeding Differ from Genetic Engineering?

       To answer some of these questions, it is important to have a cursory understanding of how the methods by which vegetable and fruit varieties have been traditionally manipulated differ from or are similar to the new techniques of biotechnology. This is easiest to explain using an analogy. The genetic information in a cell is arranged in recipes that determine what cells will do; those recipes are written in chemical units. If we represent each chemical unit in the entire genetic complement of a cell by an alphabetic letter, it would require 1700 recipe books, each of 1000 pages, to hold all the information needed to "make", for example, a wheat plant.

       When we do classical breeding, it is like mixing two large sets of recipe books, but genetic rules state that we can only end up with 1.7 million pages of recipes, not 3.4 million. This means that some recipes from each set of recipe books will be kept and some will be lost. The breeder who orchestrates the mixing has no direct control over which recipes or genes are kept, but can simply observe and chose the plants with the desirable characteristics. The breeder can increase the amount of information from one parent by continuing to cross the plants from the cross with one of the parents and in the end most of the genes will be from that parent. Varieties can be developed using this method that have only a couple dozen new recipes, but sometimes genes for desirable and undesirable characteristics are too close together to separate. The breeder has only limited control over the final outcome.

       There is a second approach to accomplishing some of the same goals that uses a different method of manipulating genetic information. Through molecular technologies one can move specific recipes or genes around to change the characteristics of the plant. In our analogy, the recipe is comparable to a one-half page in the 1.7 million-page recipe book. This is termed genetic modification (GM; although as I just described breeders genetically modify plants too), genetic engineering (GE), recombinant DNA methodologies (rDNA) or biotechnology. These methods can be used to remove the products made from certain genes or to introduce new genes that can give the plant new characteristics.  

       What are some of the similarities and differences between classical breeding and genetic engineering?

á      Both processes utilize the same cellular machinery. In breeding the process occurs inside the cell; with genetic engineering it takes place in the laboratory.

á      In the case of breeding, whether a particular recipe or gene is retained is a random process. In the case of genetic engineering, genes are specifically chosen and introduced.

á      The source of the recipes or genes that can be used with genetic engineering is from any living organism; the donor of the gene does not have to be directly related to the recipient as it does with classical breeding. This is made possible because all recipes are written in the same chemical language.

á      With biotechnology the expression of the introduced gene can be directed to occur only in specific tissues of the plant, e.g., the fruit, seeds or roots.

What Are Some Products That Might Be Created Through Biotechnology?

       Some of the early varieties of engineered fruits and vegetables have already been described. What other examples are presently in the research pipeline? Some of the activity relating to these modifications is aimed at increasing pest and stress resistance of plants, like engineering potatoes and papaya to be resistant to viruses. These changes are obviously aimed at helping the farmer, and, if used properly, can lead to positive environmental impacts with lower inputs of fertilizer and water to grow plants and less pesticides to control diseases and insects.

       Another area of interest is under the broad term "functional foods" or ŇneutraceuticalsÓ. What does this mean? Functional foods result from engineering the edible part of the plant in order to deliver an extra benefit to the consumer. This can involve the removal of an antinutritional compound, such as the toxic glycoalkaloids in potato or cassava or of a food allergen, like those in peanut and wheat. Or it can mean the addition of a component that renders a food more nutritious by raising the level of certain vitamins, amino acids or minerals.

       A third area relates to increased preservation of foods during shipping and processing. In the U.S. it is said that up to 60% of the fruits and vegetables that are grown, like the tomato, do not reach the consumerŐs table. They are damaged during transit, bruised during processing, or simply rot on market shelves or consumerŐs tables. Lowering the rate of loss would mean more food for more people.

       What products can be engineered to address these three problems?

á      Strawberries resistant to molds

á      Tomatoes protected against root nematode attack

á      Lettuce that requires less water

á      Broccoli with enhanced cancer-fighting properties

á      Sweet potatoes and tomatoes with higher levels of antioxidants

á      Potatoes with a higher protein content

á      Removing the allergens from peanut

á      Removing caffeine from coffee beans

á      Nonbrowning lettuce

á      Potatoes protected against bruising

á      Tomatoes that don't wrinkle or spoil with time

á      Melons that ripen slower or on demand

        There are many examples of these kinds of improvements in the pipeline at the moment, but most activity is in the academic sector. Whether they end up on market shelves in the near future is not known, but some, those seen as having value to the consumer, might survive.

       Perhaps the more likely applications are those relating to issues that exist in developing countries. These could include the following.

á      Fruits or vegetables enriched in vitamins, like vitamin A-enriched sweet potatoes

á      Vegetables with higher protein quality and quantity like protein- or vitamin-enriched potatoes

á      Fruits or vegetables engineered as vaccines

Is the Advent of Biotechnology Going to Change the Market in Fruits and Vegetables?

       Are the new varieties created using biotechnology likely to become major parts of the marketplace in the years to come? The answer will depend on whether engineering fruit and vegetable crops can generate sufficient profits. With the recognition of the power of the new biological tools, the focus of agrochemical giants shifted from chemistry to biology. Biology, specifically biotechnology, they felt, would provide their next wave of money making products in soybean, corn and cotton.

       But will this same enthusiasm be generated in the fruit and vegetable market? Much of the answer to this question depends not on the science so much as it does on two other issues. The first is the resolution of intellectual property rights issues. Who can perform these modifications, in what crops and for how much money? The second factor that will dictate when and how such products will emerge into the market relates to consumer acceptance and the perceptions of food producers, processors and marketers as to how such products will be received by consumers. You have heard about these issues from a previous speaker.

How have the Products Released Been Accepted by Consumers?

       Biotechnology is not the first technology over which public discussion has arisen. Furors have arisen in the past, over the shift from margarine to butter, over pasteurization, microwave ovens and food irradiation. In the U.S. scientifically conducted polls of public opinion have consistently shown that consumers here in the U.S. will accept genetically engineered foods. For the vast majority of U.S. consumers, biotechnology is much less risky in terms of food safety than additives and preservatives or possible pesticide contamination.

       But the value of these products is not universally accepted. Consumers in the U.S., Canada and Japan take for granted that the foods they purchase are safe for themselves and their families and involve very low risk of acute food-borne illness. U.S. consumers in general trust that their regulatory agencies, which insure the safety of the food supply, are doing their jobs. The same cannot be said of many consumers in Europe. Their trust in the effectiveness of their regulatory authorities to insure food safety eroded at least in part due to the handling of the mad cow and dioxin scares in the 90Ős. The decisions made during these crises were perceived by consumers as not reflecting their concern for public safety.

How Do Labeling Issues Figure into Acceptance?

       What are the U.S. labeling laws with regard to genetically engineered foods. The FDA says that foods need be labeled as genetically engineered only if they: 1) change the nutritional quality of the product, 2) introduce a gene from a known allergenic source (e.g. egg, nut, wheat), or 3) have elevated levels of an antinutritional compound. All other labeling is strictly voluntary. The results of a survey conducted in 2003 indicated that the majority of Americans support the FDA's labeling policy.

       But labeling laws are not uniform in the global marketplace. The issue of labeling has raised international trade issues between the U.S. and Europe. U.S. companies do not want to be forced to label shipments of grain because of the costs of tracking and testing that would be required. European and Pacific Rim countries, like Japan, demand labeling claiming human safety issues. Clearly labeling of unprocessed whole fruits and vegetables is not as difficult as with processed foods, but nonetheless reluctance exists on the part of the industry since they do not see it as a food safety issue, but do see it as costing a lot of money!

       Likely for most people it is not a matter of food safety; it is a matter of choice. There is discomfort with the fact that food production is falling into the hands of a few, large multinational companies. It is viewed that these few will decide what varieties of crop species will be grown and eaten. Many consumers want to use their market purchases to "vote" on whether they endorse this situation and labeling is necessary in order to enable ŇvotingÓ.

       How will this controversy be resolved? It's not known. It is likely that some products and some applications of the technology will not survive in the marketplace. In other instances products will be delivered to the consumer where the human health and environmental benefits will be easily seen and appreciated. In these cases perhaps the path to consumer acceptance will be eased and the issue of labeling will become mute. The global marketplace has benefits for the producer, but there are also difficulties. Mass media plays a very important role in shaping public opinion and we must use that tool wisely to help consumers understand the true benefits and risks of the foods of tomorrow.

For copies of slides and text, visit the Resources section of ucbiotech.org

© 2003 Peggy G. Lemaux