Pollinator grant to bear fruit for avo growers

The federal Government is investing $510,788 in research that could help improve fertilisation of Australia’s avocados by unlocking more of what we know about pollinators.

Minister for Agriculture, Senator Bridget McKenzie, said the Western Australian-based project would use innovative methods to identify insect pollinators, how well they pollinate avocado flowers and whether they pollinate across a whole orchard.

“This project has the potential to boost Australia’s $483 million avocado industry and our $11 billion horticultural sector more broadly by identifying ways to optimise pollination,”  McKenzie said.

“Pollination is a critical issue for the sustainability and productivity of avocados as they’re dependent on insect pollination, as are other varieties of perennial horticulture and annual crops as well as some native vegetation.

“Given the ongoing threat that varroa mite, a parasite that kills their honey bee hosts—the main insect pollinator used in Australian agriculture—could find its way to Australia we need to make sure we have other pollination strategies up our sleeves.

“While this work focusses on the avocado industry in south west Western Australia, it will build our knowledge around pollinators, not just bees, and give industry ideas about how to boost their numbers and efficacy.

“Adaptive management practices might include enhancement of habitat and other resources required by pollinators and improved use of pesticides to reduce negative impacts on pollinators, resulting in improved fruit set and productivity.

“Positive outcomes for avocados are expected to be matched by native flora and fauna benefits.”

The West Australian avocado industry produced 25,617 tonnes in 2018/19—almost a third of Australia’s production of 85,546 tonnes.

The $510,788 grant for South West Catchments Council represents an Australian Government investment under the $57.5 million Smart Farming Partnerships program.

Queensland research could lead to better quality avocados

Avocado aficionados will benefit from a Queensland research project that aims to strip bare the avocado to reveal detailed information about the popular fruit’s biology.

University of Queensland researcher Robert Henry said data from a $13.3 million Horticultural Tree Genomics project could lead to better quality avocados.

“Despite its global popularity and cult-like status in some countries, there is currently only a limited amount of information available on the avocado genome,” said Henry, who is also the director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation.

A team of University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology scientists will work with Hort innovation and the Queensland government to apply the latest technologies to produce a detailed map of the avocado genome, and develop genomic prediction tools.

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“Over the five years of this project, we will be linking the high level genetic information to orchard performance data, to enable the industry to produce higher quality avocados more efficiently,” said Henry.

“Advances in genomic sciences have benefitted many agricultural industries, but they haven’t fully extended into horticulture in the same way they have impacted on field crops,” he said.

The Horticultural Tree Genomics project will provide the genetic knowledge required for advanced breeding programs and future intensification of five important Australian horticultural tree crops – avocado, mango, macadamia, citrus and almond.

These crops represent 80 per cent of the total value of horticultural tree crop production in Australia and account for more than half of horticultural tree crop revenue.

Henry said genomic studies in apples showed that elite seedlings could be bred and planted as commercial varieties in just 24 months using genomic prediction approaches – as opposed to seven years through conventional breeding methods.

“The project will deliver new tools for industry to improve genetic prediction for important traits such as yield, tree architecture, flowering times, canopy structure and size, and crop load,” he said.

The project will feed into the University of Queensland, Hort Innovation and the Queensland government’s Small Trees High Productivity project by providing more detailed genetic information to underpin the project.

Hort Innovation chief executive officer Matt Brand said Australia’s ability to be at the forefront of horticultural biotechnology was essential to ensure the industry remained profitable, productive and protected.

“While currently profitable, the horticultural tree industry faces numerous and significant challenges that stem from plant diseases, slow production and climatic changes,” he said.

“Plant production is, by definition, a slow and timely process. This project will breakdown the genetic code of our five leading tree crop varieties to assess ways to develop more resilient trees that can withstand the changes expected in the coming years.”

Researchers will tap into existing global genomic information on avocado in Central America and mango in India, and identify whether detailed genetic information on Pomelo, a popular citrus crop in China, is transferrable to Australian oranges and mandarins.

“The genetics of almonds is close to peach and cherry, which are popular crops in the northern hemisphere, so a lot is known about their genetics.

“We will work with our international collaborators and see whether this information can be used to help develop management and prediction tools for Australian almond growers.”

While traditional breeding programs have developed new cultivars for macadamia, the native Australian nut has unique genetics and evolved in isolation in Australia.

“With more detailed information on the macadamia’s genetics and performance data, we can grow the crops more quickly and develop niche products for the Chinese market,” said Henry.

Is China to blame for the global avocado shortage?

Recent media reports of an avocado shortage have hipsters and foodies horrified the world over. Prices are at a record high as a result of a classic supply and demand situation. Harvests from major producers in Mexico, Peru and California, have been poor, which has reduced supply. Meanwhile, demand has surged. And not just in the affluent West, Chinese consumers are developing an insatiable taste for them too. The Conversation

The sheer number of people in China has long made the Chinese market a dream for exporters to crack. And it seems that China’s aspirational middle class has a lot in common with its Western counterparts. Especially when it comes to food fads.

I remember, as a teenager, the first time I ever heard about avocados. It was 1977 and I was watching Abigail’s Party, a Mike Leigh play on the BBC. It was a wicked and rather tragic comedy of manners, which poked fun at the insecurities of the aspirational lower middle classes.

The central character, Beverly, wanted to impress her guests by insisting that they try her avocados, olives and various other international delicacies, which were considered new and exotic at the time. The sound of romantic Demis Roussos songs on the stereo, added to the “sophisticated” ambience that Beverly thought she was creating. Upstairs, she probably also had an avocado bathroom suite. We all laughed at Beverly, even if many of us recognised something of ourselves in her attitudes and behaviour.

Conspicuous consumption

Abigail’s Party satirised the early symptoms of a trend that would be accelerated during the Thatcher years of the 1980s: conspicuous consumption. New and affordable luxuries made it possible for everyone to extend their self-image through what they bought and express their dreams of upward mobility. The academic Russell Belk wrote about this phenomenon in 1988 in his landmark marketing article, Possessions and the Extended Self.

Now avocados are in fashion again, but this time mainly for their supposed health benefits. Some regard it as a “super food” and it is included in various fad diets. Thousands of blogs, Facebook posts and Instagram pictures of smashed avocado on toast also diffuse around the world, sating our narcissistic desire to tell everyone how healthy we are or hope to be. Beverly could only impress a handful of guests in the 1970s. Now we can try to impress thousands. Belk has even updated his original article to consider the “extended self in a digital world”.

These displays of conspicuous consumption are just as prevalent in China, which has a rapidly growing middle class of more than 100m people. Avocados – or “butter fruit” as they are known – are also relatively new there, having only been available in exclusive outlets for a few years. So avocado demand there is being doubly driven, not only by their promised health benefits, but equally by their newness, exclusivity and symbolic, aspirational value to the burgeoning middle class.

Of course, the sheer size and potential of the Chinese market means that when their consumers get a taste for something, it can have a really big impact on supplies and prices around the rest of the world. A market that took 40 years to evolve in the West is being replicated in a fraction of the time in China.

Suppliers have tried to ramp up production to meet the demand. China itself is looking to establish its own domestic production in the south of the country. The problem is that avocados are difficult to grow, requiring deep aerated soil, warm conditions and huge amounts of water. Where new crops can be grown, this is leading to deforestation and pressure on water supplies.

So a super food it may be, but a huge increase in avocado production is not very good for the environment. If the current growth in demand proves to be a relatively short-term fad, then a lot of long-term damage will have been done to satisfy it. There are probably more sustainable ways of eating healthy food and achieving social one-upmanship.

However, as the West has led the way in creating consumer desires based on aspiration and status anxiety, it is a bit rich to then criticise the Chinese middle class consumer for doing the same. There are more things that unite us than divide us – not least a love of avocados.

David Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, University of Huddersfield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.