Citrus Breeding Must Focus on Speed and Results

By Peter Chaires

It is typical for research and program planning to begin well before the current year’s programs and projects are completed and reports are filed. This always presents a challenge. However, the rapidly changing dynamics in the citrus industry has impacted this process in a profound way. The loss of growers, acreage and infrastructure is front and center on everyone’s mind. There is great pressure to reevaluate priorities, timelines and the commitment of resources. New Varieties Development & Management Corp. (NVDMC) is immersed in this process.

COMPRESSED TIMELINE

Citrus breeding, variety development, trial/evaluation and commercial adoption (commercialization) is, by its nature, a long-term and methodical process. Historically, it was commonplace for varieties developed by one breeder to be released by the successor breeder or the successor’s successor. Field trials and the development of varietal data packages took 12 to 15 years or more. Of course, this was during a time that now seems like a distant and nostalgic memory.

Citrus breeding is a continuum, and decisions must sometimes be made with a crystal ball, anticipating where the industry is going and what the needs will be. Today, there is not much mystery. Short-term answers are needed in every phase and segment of the industry. Solutions or incremental improvements may come from varietal tolerance (rootstock, scion or combinations), treatments or therapies, technologies or nutrition. The short-term solutions will likely be some combination of these.

The only thing that we know is that they better come quickly. To that end, boards and planning groups are not foregoing long-term planning. But while the house is on fire, a water hose is much more valuable than new flooring. The focus is near-term.

The NVDMC board recently met multiple times with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service breeding and postharvest teams. They discussed how current resources made available by the legislature through the Florida Citrus Commission will be employed to accelerate the initial identification of promising selections, and the collection of any information that might support nomination for small-scale replication and possible large-scale field trials. There is strong support through the Citrus Research and Development Foundation and the Citrus Research and Field Trial Foundation for the small-scale replications and larger trials.

MORE TARGETED PRIORITIES

NVDMC will be focusing its efforts on targeted breeding and effective rapid initial evaluations of existing field populations of breeding material. The projects will employ the decades of experience within the breeding programs, combined with the rich and genetically diverse breeding lines available. Equally important, support will be directed to ensure that breeders have adequate personnel and equipment to cover the ground, make assessments and collect data. Finally, the NVDMC board seeks to ensure early evaluation of promising selections in all of the fruit types for possible contribution to the juice stream.

All growers and fruit types are important. However, when primary funding sources are from general revenue dollars, they are rightly directed to the industry’s most pressing needs. The loss of processing growers, acreage and facilities is the most important target. Consequently, the vast majority of funds will be directed to development and evaluation of material for this channel. This will include true sweet orange and grapefruit in the traditional sense, as well as orange-like and grapefruit-like hybrids for the juice stream of the future.

This should not be construed as an abandonment of fresh fruit or specialty fruit needs. All growers are important, no matter their focus and market. Existing variety pipelines are rich with potential for fresh orange, grapefruit and specialty fruit growers and packers. These trees and their crops will not be lost in this effort. They will be included in the overall effort, though at an industry proportionate scale. Money spent in 2022–23 has to be triage, treatment and recovery in a compact, swift package.