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COLLEGE STATION – The Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center, part of Texas A&M AgriLife Research at Texas A&M University in College Station, has been designated as a National Center of Excellence on Melons by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA.
NIFA Centers for Excellence are recognized by their success in developing beneficial public-private partnerships and efforts in research and education. The designation comes as the center continues work on a $4.4 million USDA grant to research and improve the U.S. melon industry.
“We have received this recognition based on the center’s cutting-edge, transdisciplinary research and successful delivery of advanced agricultural products to our stakeholders over the last 25 years,” said Dr. Bhimu Patil, head of the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center.
Patil said to develop nutritious, flavorful and safe melons, the newly established Center of Excellence, https://missionmelons.tamu.edu/, will conduct system-wide research, including breeding improved types of melons, optimizing agronomic and post-harvest practices, and examining consumer preferences to guide cultivar development.
“The CoE will conduct this research in collaboration with a diverse team of scientists from seven states, and will provide leadership, support and training to cultivate the next generation of agricultural scientists and leaders,” Patil said.
He said the center will develop partnerships with other projects related to melons, such as the Cucurbit Coordinated Agriculture Project.
Patil also noted the center’s research and educational mission aims to improve human health and the security of U.S. agricultural stakeholders from farmers and producers to retailers and consumers.
“To this end, the CoE will work to increase per capita consumption of melons by developing nutritious, flavorful and safe melons,” he said.
The center has received support from a number of industry and produce associations including grocery retailers Kroger and H-E-B and the Texas International Produce Association. An advisory board representing industry and retail produce groups provide guidance to the vegetable improvement center on emerging issues affecting the industry, including melons.
“In the U.S., melons such as cantaloupe and honeydew have been associated with the outbreak of 36 foodborne diseases and pathogen related fruit recalls since 1990,” Patil said.
“VFIC has been successful in teaching initiatives to increase awareness and effectively disseminate solutions to target audiences. The center’s scientists will lead the nation by partnering with melon growing states in the country.”
Patil said that, due to their physical characteristics, melons are particularly susceptible to the spread of disease.
“The surfaces of these fruits are harder to wash and thus pathogens, such as salmonella, can accumulate on the outside and contaminate the flesh when the fruit is cut.”
Patil feels these issues need to be addressed because, despite the risk of disease, melons are incredibly beneficial and durable fruits.
“Melons have a multitude of health benefits and excellent flavor aspects for consumers, as well as a good resistance to disease while growing in fields,” he said.
Patil also said the goals of the project will affect many areas of the agricultural industry.
“The long term goal of this multidisciplinary project is to enhance the sustainability and profitability of melon production in the U.S., emphasizing consumer preferences and industry-driven needs,” Patil said.
He said the project scientists will partner with melon growers across the nation to improve melon safety and assist U.S. farmers to make the business more lucrative.
“We are developing varieties based on consumer needs,” Patil said. “We have more than 23 scientists in seven states collaborating to make this happen.”