John Purcell

Thinking About the Future of Food from a Produce Perspective

Anyone who knows me—or even just follows me on Instagram—knows that I am very passionate about produce. In my mind, there is nothing on earth better than healthy and delicious fruits and vegetables, whether they are fresh from the farm or your backyard garden, or safely preserved for later consumption.

Sometimes I can’t believe I’m fortunate enough to be leading R&D efforts for Vegetable Seeds team at Bayer—the hundreds of forward-thinking men and women around the world who are continually working to improve the seeds that grow this crucial part of our food supply.

Recently I had the privilege of representing Bayer on a panel at Future Food-Tech San Francisco, an annual event that brings established business leaders and startups from the ag and food space together with investors.

The panel was led by Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer of Mars (the man behind the African Orphan Crops Consortium), and included Jennifer Armen, Vice President, Okanagan Specialty Fruits (the company that developed the non-browning Arctic® Apples); Patrick Brown, Founder & CEO, Impossible Foods (which created the plant-based Impossible Burger); Dan Voytas, Chief Science Officer, Calyxt (which just achieved a milestone by commercializing the first gene-edited crop—a soybean that produces healthier oil); and Soren Lund, Head of Strategic Growth, Food & Beverage, North America, Novozymes (a company which develops enzymes and microbes that help make food production more sustainable). Obviously, this was an accomplished group of people thinking big about next-generation food products. I really enjoyed hearing what they had to say.

john purcell
john purcell
John Purcell
Head of Vegetables R&D
entire panel
entire panel
I was privileged to participate in a panel with leaders in the ag and food space who are thinking about the next generation of food products.

So...what did I have to say? Good question. People often have a hard time understanding why research is needed to develop new produce. There is a widespread myth that the fruits and vegetables we find in the grocery store are “natural”; that this is the way Mother Nature created them and they have looked the way they do since the beginning of time. But that really couldn’t be further from the truth.

A Little Background on Plant Breeding

tomatoes
tomatoes

First, it’s important to help people understand that most of the fruits and vegetables we eat today are the result of thousands of years of selection through plant breeding; in fact, you wouldn’t be able to eat or even recognize most of them in their “natural” ancestral form. Not only that, most types of produce come in dozens (or even thousands) of different varieties, each bred specifically to meet consumer preferences like taste, size or convenience, as well as production needs like an innate ability to resist specific pests or thrive in a certain climate (e.g., cooler temperatures with a short growing season, or hot areas prone to drought conditions). Since consumer preferences and both environment and production needs continue to evolve, ag researchers must continue to develop new varieties to meet these changing demands.

Today, we serve growers in over 160 countries. We provide more than 2,000 vegetable seed varieties covering 22 crops sold under the De Ruiter and Seminis® brands. Our plant breeders are using traditional plant breeding techniques, marker-assisted breeding, and advanced analytical methods to develop improved vegetables with more precision and efficiency than ever before. By using traditional and advanced breeding techniques, our seeds have an improved ability to resist insects and diseases and, in some cases, use a reduced amount of crop protection products. This allows growers to sustainably produce crops with high harvest potential and less waste in the field.

DeRuiter Experience Center
DeRuiter Experience Center
When we develop new varieties, our focus is to deliver great consumer quality in easy-to-grow varieties so we can all enjoy eating fresh fruits and vegetables year-round.

Breeding Produce for the Future

When our teams are developing new varieties, we focus on how we can deliver great consumer quality in easy-to-grow varieties, so my family and yours can enjoy eating fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. We do this by providing growers with the best seed that both helps them grow nutritious and flavorful produce, and deliver produce varieties that withstand challenges in shipping, processing and at a retail level, so this great quality can reach all our plates. We also strive to meet the consumers’ expectations for great flavor and convenience. Some examples include:

  • Whiter cauliflower that is more appealing for consumers and sells better for retailers due to longer shelf life.
  • Truss tomatoes that make it easier for consumers to transport and have excellent taste.
  • Melon and seedless watermelon for fresh-cut produce, to address the need for smaller portions and deliver the taste consumers desire.
  • Lettuce varieties that are well-adapted for outdoor farming, and may provide solutions to indoor farming, while affording consumers better eating quality.
  • Flavorful snacking tomatoes and peppers in multiple colors, both for open-field and controlled-environment production.

One of the questions that Dr. Shapiro asked me on the panel was: ‘Is Bayer thinking about how to enhance nutrition for future generations?’ (my summarized version). You bet! Here’s what I had to say:

It Will Take Traits + Technology to Meet Future Food Needs

Our panel also discussed the role of innovation in meeting future food needs. I believe the biggest challenge facing the produce industry today is the lack of field labor – an issue I heard many people discuss at the summit and have also witnessed first-hand in farms all over the world. It is not just the rising cost of labor; there just aren’t enough people willing and/or available to do the work. One of the ways that Bayer can help solve this challenge is by breeding produce varieties that make it physically possible to machine harvest the crop, which requires collaboration not only with growers, but also the robotics engineers designing harvest equipment. As an industry, we need to continue to build and nurture the right collaborations to marry the germplasm (unique genetic material within a seed) that Bayer brings to the table with all the great technology advances on the production side.

looking at tomatoes
looking at tomatoes

Truss tomatoes are easy to transport and have excellent taste!

The same will be true for enabling new seed varieties for production methods like indoor vertical farming, a rising trend being driven by consumer demand for more fresh, locally produced fruits and vegetables. It’s important to note that most fruits and vegetable varieties currently on the market would simply not thrive in a vertical growing environment. Plant breeders will have to identify and enhance traits that enable specific crops to adapt to this new production technique. These traits will be key enablers in developing the next-generation food products.

Lastly, I think the digital and data analytics tools that are transforming row crop production will offer the same benefits for fruit and vegetable production.

I think one of the best ways to add to the nutrition of people is have them want to eat it.
(click here for more)

Similarly, I view great meetings like Future Food-Tech to be tools that will enable more collaboration across the agriculture and food production value chains. The more often that Ag, Food and Tech industry thought leaders can meet to talk about our collective vision and challenges, the better we can work together to ensure a safe, sustainable and abundant food supply, filled with healthy and delicious fruits and veggies, for future generations.

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