Improved tomatoes and spinach could revive South Texas production

Video: AgriLife Today

WESLACO  – The revival of the once-thriving vegetable production industry in South Texas will begin with the development of new tomato and spinach varieties designed to perform well in the area’s harsh conditions, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist.

Carlos Avila, a vegetable breeder at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, said work has already begun to combine favorable traits from various tomato and spinach cultivars and germplasm.

Research began before the ribbon-cutting ceremony in October to open Texas A&M AgriLife’s new Rio Grande Valley Vegetable and Education Building.

“In the case of tomatoes, production was nearly wiped out in the Rio Grande Valley by insects and diseases that were not around in the 1960s and 70s when production was thriving here,” Avila said.

Production dropped from 36,000 acres to only about 800 acres today, he said. Texas is now a net importer of about 2.4 billion pounds of tomatoes annually.

To develop new tomato varieties that taste better and are resistant to heat, insects and diseases, Avila said he is using both traditional breeding methods and molecular biology to combine favorable traits from several varieties into one.

“We can produce better tomatoes here, not just in taste but in nutritional value,” Avila said. “We can introduce and select for tomatoes with high-content compounds like antioxidants, lycopenes and carotenoids that promote good health and help prevent human diseases.”

Those advantages are not found in imported tomatoes, Avila said, because tomatoes, not necessarily intentionally, are selected for high yields and delayed ripening to extend shelf life.

“So we’re using traditional breeding methods as well as molecular approaches to develop cultivars that are adapted to our area: heat tolerant, resistant to pests and diseases, and cultivars that have enhanced nutritional values,” he said.

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