A NEW wave of health-conscious consumers looking to buy today’s ‘superfoods’ is not only resulting in phenomenal growth for the soft fruit sector but also the development of new fruits.

While there can be no doubting strawberries remain the most popular of all the soft fruits, with demand for Blueberries rising 15.8% in 2016 alone, to £322.1m, this relatively new blue fruit is hot on its heels. Not surprisingly, there are a plethora of growers and breeders looking to cash in on the next new ‘superfood’ packed full of flavonoids and antioxidants.

“We have seen good success in the past with raspberry breeding, and there is room on the shelves for more,” said Jamie Smith, business development manager at the James Hutton Ltd, the James Hutton Institute's commercial arm, who was speaking at the Scottish Society for Crop Research (SSCR) and Bulrush's Soft Fruit Information Day and Winter Meeting, held in Inchture.

“There is also huge potential in the Scottish cherry industry to bolt on late-season UK supply from Scotland, and we see potential for gooseberries, with two new enquiries from Europe as the fruit stores well, and it comes in green, white and pink varieties,” he said.

Blackberries are also growing in popularity, but Mr Smith pointed out that the traditional mainstay variety, Loch Ness is under pressure as consumers are now looking for bigger, sweeter varieties.

Following the success of the Blueberry Breeding Consortium, which was established last year in partnership with breeders in Holland and the Ukraine, to develop new varieties and extend the growing season; he pointed out that a similar project is about to kick into gear for the blackberries alongside partners in Germany, Holland, the UK and France.

Looking further ahead Mr Smith said he was hopeful the Institute's bid for funding for an Advanced Plant Growth Centre (APGC) in Dundee, would come to fruition.

This unique research centre focussed on opportunites around vertical growth, controlled environments and understanding plant responses and growth factors is, however, very much dependant on funding of up to £28m, and is at present under consideration as part of the Tay Cities Deal – a partnership between local, Scottish and UK governments and the private, academic and voluntary sectors which seeks to create a smarter, fairer and more prosperous Angus, Dundee and Perth and Kinross. News of which projects are to be funded is expected in the spring.

If successful, the centre would look to deliver increased commercial, economic and environmental benefits to the agricultural, food and drink sectors in the UK and internationally, by innovative use of precision-controlled environmental technologies. With a return on investment of £11.70 for every £1 invested and £330m in economic added value, it is claimed it would bring significant economic impact and an estimated 800 full-time equivalent jobs to the entire UK food and drink supply chain.

The centre would look to work with commercial partners to develop technology associated with vertical growth systems including plant/light interaction, sensor technology and the understanding of factors affecting taste and flavour. It would also look to develop plant varieties for vertical growth facilities including those suitable for automatic harvesting and bio-pharma use.

Add to that the development of speed breeding to materially reduce the development time for new crops that can tolerate climate change and evolving pest and disease risks and develop an innovative post-harvest research facility to reduce losses during processing, transport and storage, and the APGC would certainly revolutionise the industry.

In time, with such controlled environment research facilities, to include growth rooms and chambers, advanced phenotyping facilities, smart polytunnels, glasshouses and field trials, the new unit would also attract ‘spin-in' organisations and support development of 'spin-out' opportunities, and reduce food imports.