A multi-institution research initiative aims to breed new varieties of organic tomatoes resistant to foliar diseases and maintain the taste consumers want.
The $2 million grant, awarded by the Organic Research and Extension Initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, will also enable researchers to identify management practices that reduce disease pressure while protecting soil and water quality.
Lori Hoagland, assistant professor of horticulture at Purdue University, is heading the project that includes researchers from North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T University, Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Organic Seed Alliance, according to an Oct. 1 announcement by Purdue
The research reflects increasing consumer interest in organic crops, Jay Akridge, Glenn W. Sample Dean of Purdue Agriculture, said in the statement.
The researchers will look into ways farmers can avoid foliar pathogen diseases such as early blight, late blight and Septoria leaf spot. The issue is especially important in the Midwest and Southeast regions of the U.S. where warm, humid conditions favor these diseases and severe outbreaks can destroy tomato crops.
Tomato growers often plant heirloom varieties rather than newer disease-resistant hybrids because of the heirlooms' appetizing taste. But heirloom varieties tend to be highly susceptible to foliar diseases.
Frequent application of copper fungicides can help organic growers manage foliar diseases. But copper can kill microorganisms in soil that help plants grow and can affect water quality. Growers could forgo copper applications if a new, resistant, sweet-tasting variety were produced, the statement says
Conventional growers also could benefit from such new varieties because they would reduce the amount of pesticides they use, thereby lowering their costs.
The researchers will work on breeding tomato varieties that can connect with beneficial soil microbes in their roots that help them fight diseases, Hoagland said. They will also investigate management practices that favor these beneficial soil microbes and identify new organic fungicides that are more environmentally friendly.