Forum—Horticultural Research: It's a Growing Process
|| Walk down the produce aisle in almost any
grocery store in the country and you'll find a diversity and an abundance of
fruits, vegetables, nuts, and even flowers that rivals the fabled magic
cornucopia. Stores stock this bounty because consumers want and buy more
produce each year.
Consumer demand for horticultural crops has made them one of the fastest
growing segments of U.S. agriculture. This crop group, which includes nursery
and floral crops and turfgrass, is now the country's third most important
commodity group. Grower receipts for horticultural products have been
increasing at a rate of $500 million annually.
What is fueling this demand?
For one thing, Americans are more health conscious. Our knowledge of the
importance and role of fruits and vegetables in maintaining health is becoming
much more specific. Discoveries like ARS' work with high-antioxidant fruits and
vegetablesfound to prevent and even restore some loss of nerve function
in aging ratsare helping focus attention on the specifics of optimum
The economic boom of the 1990s brought a higher standard of living for many
people. With more disposable income, people are spending more money at the
grocery store on a wider variety of fresh produce. Sales of floral and nursery
crops have similarly increased.
In addition, the ethnic diversity of the U.S. population is expanding at a
prodigious rate. This increase in diversity, along with the growth of global
trade, has introduced Americans to a plethora of exotic produce and
With exposure, U.S. consumers have become more adventurous in trying unusual
horticultural products. Fifty years ago, fresh pineapples were rare in
mainstream supermarkets; 25 years ago, mangos and papayas were uncommon; today,
these fruits are regular offerings, along with starfruit, jicama, and
plaintains. And orchids are commonplace at garden centers.
So where does horticulture go from here? Research is moving in a number of
important new directions, besides pursuing traditional avenues such as
increasing pest and disease resistance and improving growing techniques.
As consumer demand pushes exotic produce from a niche market to everyday fare,
scientists are working on ways to grow many of these crops domestically.
Researchers are also developing ways to extend the shelf life of horticultural
U.S. consumers have become accustomed to having access to fresh fruits and
vegetables all year. The ability to store produce longer means a U.S. crop can
be used over a longer period or an imported shipment can come from farther
awayincluding from areas where the harvest season differs from that in
the United States.
Enhanced nutrition is also receiving new emphasis. ARS researchers are breeding
for specific nutritional traits, such as enhanced carotenoid content, mineral
composition, and other health-promoting compounds. This issue of
Agricultural Research features work in Poplarville, Mississippi, where
scientists are developing berries with higher levels of resveratrol, a compound
that has anticancer properties and cardiovascular benefits (p. 10).
Food safety issues, especially pesticide residues and bacterial contamination,
are another priority for horticultural research. Consumers are not only
demanding greater variety in flavor, color, and access, they also want to know
that the food they buy, including horticultural crops, is completely safe. ARS
researchers are developing baseline information needed to develop plans for
Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) for many crops and processing
Safety of products from the genetic engineering of horticultural crops is also
of greater concern. ARS is doing more risk assessment to help ensure that
gene-altered crops are safe for people and the environment. The agency is
committed to rigorous safety testing before a variety or technology is released
to the public.
Biotechnology is critical to research and its ability to meet consumer and
industry demands. With new genetic technologies, the time required to develop a
new variety can potentially be cut in half. Scientists can pinpoint the genes
that control desired traits, and these genes can be efficiently transferred
into new varieties using direct gene transfer technology or conventional
But ARS researchers are not simply concerned with inserting new genes. They
wish to manipulate how and when the new genes function. From control of plum
pox virus and other disease-causing pathogens to extended shelf life, ARS
scientists are using genetic engineering to improve horticultural crops in many
ways. The story on page 14 focuses on the research of ARS plant physiologist
Autar K. Mattoo, in Beltsville, Maryland. He is working to improve the shelf
life and quality of tomatoes.
As research makes horticultural crops more nutritious, safer, tastier, more
convenient to ship, and easier to store, consumer interest and demand will
continue to grow. As consumer demand increases, research will be called on to
provide even more improvements. It's a growing process.
John R. Stommel
Acting National Program Leader
Horticulture and Sugar Crops
"Forum" was published in the
2000 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.