The race is on to develop a red-fleshed apple for world markets and Plant and Food's programme, based in Havelock North, is a front-runner. But there are an estimated 50 apple breeding programmes throughout the world, all looking for yummy innovation. Plant and Food's programme, started by the late Dr Don McKenzie and developed further by Allan White, is enjoying great success with its innovative varieties.
A $21.6 million investment in the programme came last year, made up of Prevar and Government funds. It enables Dr Richard Volz, who took over the commercial breeding programme in 2001, to become a "fast breeder".
"We call it DNA profiling when the plant is only a few inches high, so we don't have to wait for it to fruit," he said. "We will also be doing a lot more pre-commercial testing on commercial orchards so growers Prevar and Plant and Food get a lot more robust information."
But the proof will be in the eating, says Turners & Growers and ENZA director and global variety development manager Brian D'Ath.
ENZA is at the forefront of the apple industry worldwide, selling fruit in more than 60 countries and growing apples in 12 countries, while supplying fresh apples year round.
D'Ath had tried red-fleshed apples under development in France and said they tasted "okay".
He said it was very important to get it right first time when taking a new product to market. "They have the added attraction for all the foodies because they have more antioxidants. Everyone is going to want to go and buy one and try it, but if they think it was pretty ordinary they might not buy it again. That's the key to it."
ENZA, in the form of the Apple and Pear Marketing Board, was once the funding partner of the programme at Plant and Food (the former Hort Research and before that DSIR).
ENZA had the exclusive rights to new varieties until deregulation in November 2001, when Prevar was formed to represent New Zealand Growers.
Apple and Pear adopted the trade name ENZA and was a shareholder company owned by growers.
At this stage, ENZA had the marketing rights to the Pacific series, Scifresh (trademarked as Jazz) and Scilate (trademarked as Envy) for further evaluation.
"We were invited to select which ones we might want to carry on with and Envy was the only one at that stage we kept. We didn't really consider any of the others - we handed them back so whoever carried on with it could realise them.
"When you are commercialising new varieties you can't do them all, you have to make a decision. We were looking for the ones we could market at reasonably large volumes in both hemispheres for year-round sales. "We sent the rest back to Plant and Food to ultimately become part of Prevar."
Plant and Food's new varieties are now contractually handed to Prevar, a company whose shareholders are Apple and Pear Australia, representing Australian growers, Pipfruit New Zealand, representing the New Zealand pipfruit industry, and Plant and Food.
Mr D'Ath said it would have been wrong to hoard varieties they could not develop themselves. "At the end of the day it's about keeping faith with the industry at large."
ENZA is busy establishing a worldwide network. "To exercise your rights on a plant variety patent, in a territory, you have to prove use.
"We are growing commercial volumes in Chile, South Africa and Australia who are New Zealand's competitors.
"But, if we didn't grow a commercially viable operation over there and someone got hold of some of the budwood and started growing Jazz or Envy when we weren't, we could have difficulty arguing a court case."
Foreign growers were obliged to deliver the fruit to a packhouse nominated by ENZA for marketing.
A royalty was collected which was passed on to Prevar, as happened in New Zealand, to further fund the research project.
In stage one, crosses are grown to produce at least 30,000 to 60,000 seedlings each year.
The seedlings are screened for resistance to black spot and, for some, DNA profiling is carried out to select plants that include the genes that control important traits.
Those selected are grafted on dwarf root stock (M.9, the same as used by orchardists) in research orchards. Many of the young trees are managed in the glasshouse to produce flowers and fruit beyond the juvenile stage in just four years (previously it took six years for most seedlings to flower).
Each year, between 50 and 100 of the seedlings are selected to go to stage two.
Eight replicates of each selection are produced, of which half are planted in Hawke's Bay and half in Nelson.
These are assessed by the scientists and industry members for their commercial viability.
At stage three, one or sometimes two selections are chosen to proceed to semi-commercial trials where 300 to 500 trees will be planted on five to eight commercial orchards in Hawke's Bay and Nelson.
Apples from the trees are tested with consumers and further research takes place on the manageability of the trees.
It used to take 15 years from the initial cross to new trees reaching availability to growers, but now can now take as few as eight years.
Fast breeding should halve that again.