AT RISK – Soft Fruit

18 Sep 2002

The great rush is on in China to meet next year’s June deadline, when the vast reservoir of the Three Gorges Dam begins to fill, swallowing up 400 square miles of land.

The controversial US$25 billion project will dislocate almost 2 million people, almost half of them farmers, submerging established agricultural lands plus pristine forest, taking a huge toll on the region’s social structure, economy and biodiversity.

It’s the latter that Russel Lowe is most concerned with. A bio-scientist with the New Zealand company HortResearch, Lowe is working on collecting, recording and replanting the kiwi fruit varieties native to the Three Gorges Valleys, in China’s Sichuan Province. He and a team of New Zealand and Chinese scientists are writing a genetic history of one of the world’s most popular fruits before its native habitat is destroyed by man’s most ambitious attempt at controlling nature.

Here he speaks exclusively with Sloweek about operation kiwi save.

Please provide a brief overview of the Yangtze River/kiwi project.
China is the ancestral home of the kiwi fruit, and is the source of most of the 60 or so known species in the genus Actinidia (kiwi fruit). The aim is to survey key areas of ‘wild’ Actinidia plants near the Yangtze River, in the Sichuan Province, using data from previous surveys made by Chinese researchers. We plan to collect material from a large number of sites across the province to maximize diversity. Seeds and cuttings collected will be propagated and grown in a dedicated collection area in China.

How did you and HortResearch first get involved in the project?
I first visited the Sichuan Provincial Natural Resources Research Institute (SPNRRI) in 1993, when we discussed scientific cooperation in kiwifruit research. In 1998 Dr Ron Beatson and I were involved in a joint survey of Actinidia in the famous Mt Emei area in Sichuan. Discussions at that time centered on the subject of conserving existing wild Actinidia germplasm in the renowned Three Gorges area of the Yangtze River. This was very relevant at the time as the initial construction of the Three Gorges Dam was underway. Our Chinese partners were very keen to get this project moving and we were able to sign an agreement fairly promptly with the support of the Sichuan Science and Technology Commission. The survey started in 1999.

Could you give a brief explanation of how and why this fruit has become one of NZ’s most famous products?
The ‘Hayward’ kiwifruit hides a succulent, tangy emerald-green flesh inside its rather dowdy, brown exterior. It is healthy and nutritious, being one of the most nutritionally dense fruit available and the appeal of the green flesh is unique among fruits. The fruit can be stored for 6 months without losing quality, so it is the perfect export for a country like New Zealand, which is a long way from its main markets in Europe and Asia. Kiwi fruit vines thrive in the deep volcanic soils of New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty area and the sub-tropical climate is ideal for cultivation of the crop. NZ produces 250,000 tonnes of kiwi fruit per annum from about 10,000 hectares and most of the product is exported.

What progress have you made so far with the project?
We are delighted with the progress made so far with our collection of A. Deliciosa (the common kiwi fruit), and nine other species found. It was fascinating to find live plants in the wild of species unknown in NZ. I will be participating in the 2003 collection expedition, and look forward to inspecting the many propagated plants now growing in the collection in Sichuan.

Will you be developing a type of ‘seed bank’ of native Kiwi varieties?
This collection of live plants is already well established in China. The size and diversity of this new collection will make it an extremely useful resource for future research into kiwi fruit.

And how many of these will be actually put into cultivation in China?
Probably very few, but after assessment in the repository, they could be incorporated into new breeding populations to utilise improved characteristics such as pest and disease resistance, adaptation to climate change, productivity, new flesh colours and flavors, or could be used to develop new juices or processed products.

In your opinion, why is it so important to save China’s native kiwi varieties?
These unique ancestors of the commercial kiwifruit must be saved in order to provide genetic diversity for the breeders and kiwi fruit growers of the future. Once these living plants are gone, their genes will be lost forever.

What is your opinion on monoculture v biodiversity – is this project working towards achieving the latter in NZ and China’s kiwi industry?
The commercial kiwifruit industry is based on just a few elite cultivars and the ‘Hayward’ cultivar from NZ is the most widely grown worldwide. There are always risks in such monocultural cultivation – who knows what new pests or diseases may arise in the future. I consider this project will certainly provide a base for producing new advanced cultivars in the future.

Have you enjoyed working on this project? How has the collaboration with your Chinese colleagues gone?
It was fascinating to be able to see wild kiwi fruit vines in their natural habitat and a privilege to visit places and people off the beaten track in the mountains of Sichuan. The rural Chinese people seemed to be friendly to visitors and cooperative in helping us locate wild plants in their area. We have had full cooperation with our Chinese colleagues who have made every effort to make sure the project was successful and that we were well looked after.

Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team

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