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White Christmas: Pale strain of strawberries sheds new light on festive season

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Australia’s leading strawberry breeder is on a delicious quest to release a striking pure white fruit that is ripe when the seeds on its skin turn red.

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Senior scientist Jodi Neal and her team have already perfected the colour of the stunning strawberry, which is white-fleshed to its core.

But the work on the novelty new variety will not be complete until the taste is judged as being just right.

“This is close but when we release a white strawberry we want it to be really good … we want it to be mind-blowing,” Neal said.

At the Queensland Department of Agriculture’s Maroochy research centre on the Sunshine Coast, the respected scientist combines natural breeding techniques and cutting-edge science to develop new varieties for all of Australia’s major growing regions.

The focus is on improving fruit quality, flavour, disease resistance, shelf life, climate tolerance and providing consumers with more variety.

“If you go into the supermarket and look at apples, for example, you have your Pink Lady, your Jazz, your Red Delicious, and they all look different, they taste different and we want to be able to give strawberry eaters that same choice,” Neal said.

Hort Innovation funds the national program using levies from the Australian strawberry industry that are matched by the Australian Government.

In recent years, 12 new strawberry varieties have been commercialised, including the extremely successful Red Rhapsody, a large sweet fruit that is easier to pick and pack, with a longer shelf life which reduces waste.

“This winter, just past around 90 per cent of all the fruit in supermarkets would have been our varieties,” Neal said.

Breeding program ‘remarkable success’

Berries Australia executive director Rachel Mackenzie described the strawberry breeding program as “a remarkable success”.

“The whole of industry investment in these varietals, and the success that some of them have had, highlights how important continued investment is,” Mackenzie said.

“We are also looking at some implications around climate change so it’s really important that we continue with these breeding programs to ensure that we have good quality fruit as conditions change.”

Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner credited the breeding program for a large part of the success of the Queensland strawberry industry, which produces the bulk of Australia’s strawberries.

“The program’s strawberry varieties had an estimated national farmgate value of $201 million in 2018–19,” he said.

“[They] now make up 80 per cent of strawberries planted in Queensland, supporting jobs and enhancing Queensland’s well-earned reputation for producing the world’s finest produce.”

The white strawberry is being bred from another new strawberry variety that develops a pink blush when the sun kisses its skin.

“They have really high sugar levels and they’re not as tangy as other fruits, so really lovely,” Neal said.

The national program has trial fields in Nambour, Stanthorpe, near Perth and in Victoria.

Top award for strawberry breeding

Neal was proud to share the top honour in the rural, regional and remote category of the 2020 Women in Technology awards for her role as project lead in the breeding program.

“I really, really love what I do,” she said.

“Probably the biggest thing is actually being able to see the direct results of my work impacting farmers and consumers.

“And seeing that people are able to remain in business because of the varieties that we’ve been able to release and that it’s making a difference to actual communities and people.

“But I also get to eat a lot of strawberries. So that’s pretty good.”

– ABC / Jennifer Nichols

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