Ben McLean, head of research at Uncle Matt's Organic, and Amber Sciligo, science program manager at The Organic Center, dive even deeper into organic issues after their citrus greening panel f ( Amy Sowder )

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — What is flavor?

It’s not simply the taste, as many fresh-produce professionals would suspect, said William “Bill” Kazokas, an organic breeder with a doctorate degree in horticultural science and plant breeding from the University of Florida.

“It’s a multisensory experience: visual, tactile, smell, taste,” said Kazokas, a panelist at “Breeding for Flavor,” — one of several sessions organized by the Organic Trade Association at The Packer’s Global Organic Produce Expo. The breeding seminar, as well as a citrus greening panel discussion, were two deep-dives into the science of organic growing and marketing.

Amber Sciligo, science program manager at The Organic Center, led a discussion on the unique needs of the organic seed breeding industry, stressing the need for more organic seeds to meet demand. Sciligo also said the industry should support existing organic seed breeders and provide more training and resources to recruit new breeders.

Researchers revealed what’s possible when seed breeders expand their focus beyond yield and transportability as primary desirable traits and begin selecting for other qualities, such as flavor, nutrition, weed resistance and resilience to weather and pests. 

For example, researchers have been breeding basil seeds for a flatter leaf that prevents cupping, which can hold pathogens, said panelist Erica Renaud of Vitalis Seed. They’ve been evaluating the 14-day and retailer-requested 21-day shelf life of post-harvest arugula, which consumers buy more organic than conventional. And consumer market research shows tomatoes must be bred for taste especially, she said.

“As breeders, we always focus on what the grower needs. But what we’re also hearing is from the plant retailers that shoppers want freshness, diversity and flavor,” Kazokas said. “Together we can as an industry establish some goals of how we want the flavor to be, a model. Defining a goal is super important.”

Renaud fielded a question after the presentation about whether conventional seeds can be used in an otherwise organic certified agricultural system and still qualify as USDA-certified organic.

“Yes, but an organic grower must show they looked for three different seed purveyors prior to using conventional seed,” Renaud said. “They must show due diligence that they tried to find it but it wasn’t available.”

At the “Quest for an Organic Solution to Citrus Greening” session, Sciligo presented a paper that scoured through the large body of research on the devastating citrus greening disease to highlight organic-compliant methods to fight the disease.

Citrus greening disease, also known as huanglongbing (HLB), is spread when the Asian citrus psyllid feeds on citrus leaves and stems. The first known case in Florida was in 1998.

By 2020, it is predicted HLB will have reduced citrus production by more than 65%, Sciligo said.

Even conventional growers should be interested in organic solutions because conventional pesticides aren’t working, Sciligo said. The psyllids are adapting and building resistance to sprays, and “unfortunately, a lot of these sprays that kill the bad bugs also kill the good bugs,” she said. A combination of organic tools has proven the most effective, although “there’s no silver bullet,” she said.

In 2013, Uncle Matt’s Organic, Clermont, Fla., first saw the effects of the disease on its crop, losing about three-fourths of its productive acres, said Ben McLean, head of research and a panelist member. The company sold its organic juice business to Dean Foods in 2017, and now operates the fresh organic fruit business as McLean Family Farms. 

“The industry really is at a threat,” McLean said. 

Citrus greening session at GOPEX
Dennis Holbrook of South Tex Organics, Amber Sciligo of The Organic Center and Ben McLean of Uncle Matt's Organics share ideas and solutions to the citrus greening disease after an educational session at the 2019 Global Organic Produce Expo in Hollywood, Fla. (Photo: Amy Sowder)


McLean has conducted several studies with The Organic Center and University of Florida academics to come up with a multi-pronged solution that significantly reduces its impact. The combination can include heavy composting, sweep nets, release of Tamarixia wasps that are psyllid predators, rotating Mycotrol and other biologic products, reflective mulching, among other tactics.

The Organic Center’s most recent report on greening solutions is here.