‘This new broccoli is all about speed,” says Dr Jonathan Clarke, Head of Business Development at the John Innes Centre. “It takes 8-10 weeks from seed to harvest. We have accelerated the process, because of our scientific knowledge about flowering time.”
His colleague Dr Judith Irwin (Senior Scientist) revealed the details of the new broccoli during her presentation – ‘Developing a short generation broccoli for 21st Century horticulture’ – at Agri-Tech East’s ‘Nutritious and Delicious’ event in Norwich.
We spoke with Jonathan Clarke about the short generation broccoli, moving production to urban farms and creating resilience to climate change.
A rapid growing process
The new broccoli line is fast due to the John Innes Centre’s knowledge about flowering. This is the specialism of Dr Irwin; she works in collaboration with Professor Dame Caroline Dean to translate fundamental research on the control of flowering from the reference plant Arabidopsis thaliana to Brassica crop species.
The timing of the switch to flowering (the part of the broccoli plant that we eat) is essential, as it is critical for adaptation to the environment and resulting yield. Judith explains: “We harnessed our knowledge of how plants regulate the flowering process to remove the requirement for a period of cold temperature and bring this new broccoli line to harvest faster. This means growers could turn around two field-based crops in one season, or if the broccoli is grown in protected conditions, 4-5 crops in a year.”
Climate change is one of the most prominent challenges facing 21st century horticulture. It is the aim of the JIC scientists to produce crops with a more predictable and shorter flowering period, despite varying conditions.
Jonathan says: “We were looking at what was happening in the field and saw that the environment is changing – but it is not changing consistently. We can’t predict from year to year how much cold we are going to get. That creates a real problem for scheduling, as we don’t know when the crop will come to flower.
“In crops such as broccoli, we are effectively eating the flower. So if the plant hasn’t made the transition from vegetative to reproductive growth at the right time, we don’t get the flowers. This creates huge problems in terms of getting persistent performance in-field.
“While we can make some genetic changes – that might help us if those changes in our environment were consistent – it’s much more difficult when we are in an environment with inconsistent, unpredictable changes.
“So by focusing on the need of broccoli varieties for a period of cold (vernalisation) to promote flowering, the John Innes Centre has been considering the need for predictive breeding to suit a varied climate.
High value vertical farms
In addition to having a short growth period, there is a potential opportunity to move production into urban farms for continuous production.
Jonathan says: “The continuity of food production is vulnerable to changes in our climate. At JIC we have been challenging the way people think about how food production. Potentially some forms of horticultural production could be moved into contained horticultural production systems – these could be simple glasshouse or more complex vertical farms where large quantities of produce is grown in a confined space.”
The John Innes Centre is an independent, international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology, based at the Norwich Research Park. Its innovative research benefits agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being