COLLEGE STATION — Vegetable research at Texas A&M is putting down new roots with medical and industry scientists seeking to make veggies more healthful and nutritious.
Since the university formed a Vegetable Improvement Center in July 1992, more than 20 researchers — including three who are working on cancer or heart disease prevention — and more than 20 private food industry companies have paid dues and joined forces to create better produce for consumers.
The center is unique for several reasons: its goal is to develop vegetables for their health benefits rather than traditional traits such as size or yield; its researchers include atypical projects between medical and agricultural scientists from universities and private companies; and, companies that may eventually market the products are included early, even when the product is a vegetable pie in the sky.
“We’re taking the folklore and myths of vegetables and making them fact,” said the center’s director, Dr. Leonard Pike. “The biggest thing going is that we have medical people working with us. They tell us what compounds in a vegetable affect human health, and we use that information to breed a vegetable for a particular trait.”
It’s an arrangement that’s easy to buy into. Companies involved in vegetable seed production, processing and handling or retailing can become members of the center for as little as $500, depending on the size of the company. That gets the company in on the first rung of the ladder. Companies also may contribute toward an endowment fund. Later, when a product is developed and ready for market, the members share in the commercial benefits derived from the new vegetable.
Pike said private companies also are welcomed to send their own scientists to conduct research at the center. Texas A&M provides the lab and office space — in the university’s modern research park — and the company pays the salary and other expenses for the project.
“This will help us attract more scientists to work at solving a problem but with no cost to the state,” Pike said. “And that should enable us to get products commercialized sooner.”
He said research that is done without the involvement of commercial companies can take years to reach the retail market. Some of it never does.
“But if the companies — from the seed producers to the grocers — are members, they will know what’s in the mill and they can begin to think about commercialization plans at that point,” Pike explained. “We won’t have to pitch it to them. They already will know the product intimately and will be aware of any special features such as unique handling, packaging or processing methods required.”
“We see this as really revolutionary in terms of industry and university support,” said Dr. Rick Jones, Asgrow research project leader for onions in California. “There are certain types of research that we just can not support financially — research of a more basic nature. This gives us the capability to have major input in some of our primary problems in the seed industry. We can rub shoulders with other researchers not only in our field of plant breeding but in human nutrition sciences and biotechnology.”
Dr. Larry Baker, associate director of onion and carrot research at Asgrow facilities in Wisconsin, agrees.
“This is the most progressive arrangement that I am aware of in the vegetable seed business,” he said. “This allows us to set common priorities so that from the outset both sides buy into the work and put forth the effort to make it work.”
The vegetable industry is no small potatoes. Texas growers produce about $500 million in vegetable crops annually. That turns into an economic impact of more than $1.25 billion for the state each year.
The Texas Agricultural Experiment Station already invests about $3.7 million a year toward vegetable improvement. Most of that work, which involves the main campus in College Station as well as six regional sites, pertains to breeding and genetic improvement, plant stress and adaptation, and production systems. But Pike said researching vegetables for improved nutritional and health aspects is virtually uncharted ground.
He hopes to have the first industry researchers at the center by January. But university research, which began at least two years ago before the center idea was conceived, already is bustling at the new facility. A visiting scientist from Egypt is working with Pike’s team. Furnishings are in for the six labs. Work is in progress in the tissue culture room, the tissue transfer room, the disease screening room and the vegetable chemical analysis room. A growth chamber should be in place by the end of the year.
As researchers arrive and begin various studies, Pike said, the center can look forward to producing sustained improvement of vegetable crops.