CHASING DOWN THE STRAWBERRY (The bouts to genetically engineer a fruit)

How Driscoll’s Reinvented the Strawberry

The berry behemoth turned produce into a beauty contest, and won.

By Dana Goodyear

Driscoll’s relentless focus on breeding has helped shape the supermarket strawberry.
Illustration by Jack Sachs

One foggy May morning, the Joy Makers, a team of scientists employed by Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company, gathered at its research-and-development campus, which is known as Cassin Ranch, in the small agricultural town of Watsonville, on California’s Central Coast. Before them was a table laden with plastic clamshells: red, white, and pink strawberries for the pipeline. Phil Stewart, an affably geeky, sandy-haired strawberry geneticist, offered me a yellowish-white specimen with rosy stains, like a skinned knee when the blood starts seeping through. The Joy Makers watched expectantly as I tasted it. The fruit, an unpatented variety referred to as 21AA176, was juicy and soft, mildly astringent but tropical, reminiscent of white tea. “It goes back to a variety called White Carolina, which is maybe the oldest strawberry variety still in existence,” Stewart said. “It dates back to the seventeen-hundreds.”

In some Asian markets, white fruit is coveted, and Driscoll’s has conducted commercial trials in Hong Kong. But although the company has been breeding whites for fifteen years, it has yet to introduce any to U.S. grocery stores; Americans, accustomed to an aggressive cold chain, typically fear underripe fruit. “I brought these to a wedding, and all the parents were telling their kids not to eat the white ones,” a Joy Maker remarked. Lately, however, Driscoll’s focus groups have shown that millennials, adventurous and open-minded in their eating habits, and easily seduced by novelty, may embrace pale berries. With these consumers, unburdened by preconceived notions of what a white berry should look or taste like,….

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