Mangoes, papayas, carambolas, kiwi fruit—whether you're shopping in Washington, D.C., or Lincoln, Nebraska, these and other imported treats are no longer strangers in the produce section.
The fruit and vegetable variety that's routinely available to today's consumer would boggle the mind of a 1940's-era shopper—or even a shopper from the 1960's. And in many cases, the Agricultural Research Service has played a part in bringing those exotic fruits to your corner grocery.
Consider the mango, a dietary staple in many countries. ARS scientists certainly didn’t invent the mango; it's originally from Southeast Asia, and there are some estimates that it's been a cultivated plant for as long as 6,000 years.
In the 1980's, mangoes imparted to the United States from the Caribbean were treated with ethylene dibromide—EDB—to stop hitchhiking pests like fruit flies. When EDB was banned in this country for environmental reasons, an alternative treatment was fumigation with methyl bromide. But that isn't workable for mangoes, for it damages the skin and shortens shelf life.
The ARS solution to this dilemma: a hot-water treatment from our Miami, Florida, laboratory that wipes out the pests without harming the fruit. ARS subsequently collaborated with researchers, in Caribbean countries, such as Haiti, to demonstrate the treatment's effectiveness, and the result has been a continuing supply of Caribbean mangoes for U.S. consumers.
But ARS' contribution to the produce section extends beyond the exotic imports.
Take apples. As shoppers, we automatically expect apples to be available to us at any time of the year. But that continuous supply is a result of agricultural science, not nature's largesse.
ARS researchers in Washington State have been deeply involved in pinpointing just the right storage atmosphere to extend the shelf life of apples so the annual harvest provides a year-round supply.
The secret, our scientists have shown, is storage in a controlled atmosphere that's low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide.
As a result, the apples actually come out of storage crisper than before they went in.
ARS scientists have also helped develop ways to eliminate the natural pathogens—microorganisms and fungi—that attack apples in storage, causing lesions and eventually eating their way into the fruit.
Storage techniques are a major factor in any fruit's long-term market availability.
For example, tropical fruits that don't grow in cold climates can suffer injury in cold storage, where temperatures may be only a degree or two above freezing. To prevent this, ARS scientists at Beltsville, Maryland, and Orlando, Florida, are developing systems of pre-storage conditioning, such as a heat treatment to toughen up tropical fruits before they go into cold storage.
Techniques such as this could help prevent problems like the skin lesions that sometimes mar tropicals.
When I was growing up in Indiana, people there didn't eat mangoes or carambolas—and if you wanted strawberries out of season, you ate ones that had been home-canned or frozen during the normal growing season.
Today they do eat mangoes in Indiana, and sand pears from Korea and Japan, and grapes from Chile. And the same technologies that make it possible for us to have the Korean pears and Chilean grapes enable us to have strawberries out of season—imported from other countries where the growing season is different from ours.
Whether it's an imported carambola or an imported strawberry, it's likely that the fruit has undergone some sort of quarantine treatment to enter this country—such as a hot-water or hot-air treatment—and ARS has been a major player in developing those technologies.
So at the same time you're enjoying nature's bounty, you're also reaping the harvest of ARS research and technology to ensure that this country has an economical, abundant, and varied food supply that’s the envy of the world.
Kenneth W. Vick
National Program Leader
Stored Product Insects and Plant Quarantine