The history of Spanish table grape breeder ITUM is a grassroots success story in the true sense of the word, and it is one that is inextricably linked to the organization’s home region of Murcia. Located in the southwestern corner of Spain, Murcia is today the country’s largest table grape growing region, but this wasn’t always the case.
This may seem an unremarkable statement, but before the year 2000, Murcia was principally dedicated to growing grapes for wine. That was until 2002, when a group of 24 local table grape growers came together with the Murcian Institute of Agricultural Research to create ITUM, an organization dedicated to developing new varieties suited to conditions in this corner of Spain, which stretches from the mountainous Sierra Espuña down to the Mediterranean Sea.
Commercial production officially began in 2013, and ITUM currently has 16 varieties being grown, not just in Spain, but also in South Africa, South America and Australia. In fact, though traditionally there are the “big four” commercial breeders — IFG and Sun World in California, SNFL, also based in Murcia, along with Grapa, based in Israel — ITUM is now rising rapidly, gaining global status as a major breeder.
We spoke to CEO Esther Gómez (also co-owner and director of Frutas Esther), head table grape breeder and investigator, Manuel Tornel, and administrator Maria Angeles Cascales Pérez.
Q: What is ITUM, and how did you become involved in the organization?
Esther: In Spain, around the year 1999-2000, there was a revolution in terms of table grape varieties. Huge numbers of growers had started producing without permission; something growers in Spain weren’t particularly used to. At the time, I was working in my family company – a table grape grower – and we realized that most of the growers, including ourselves, didn’t have access to the varieties we wanted.
With the aim of coming up with our own seedless varieties, we started collaborating with the Murcian Institute of Agricultural Research in our own region of Murcia. Over the following six or seven years, they started to develop the first varieties.
What we did was look at how to support the needs of growers via a concept similar to the California Table Grape Commission; that is to say, a group of growers that finance the research costs together with the Murcian Institute. This was how ITUM came about.
Q: When did ITUM switch from research and investigation to also becoming a commercial organization?
Manuel: I was already working with [colleague and fellow investigator] Juan Carreño on a program to improve table grape varieties. I was there from the first moment ITUM was created in 2002 to develop new varieties, and when Juan left in 2015, I become the principal researcher.
We began to register our first commercial varieties in 2012 and in 2013, almost exactly 10 years ago, which is when the first commercial production was established here in Spain.
Since then, it has been growing by more than 100 hectares annually, and currently there are over 1,250 hectares in Spain growing ITUM table grapes. In fact, some 20% of grape-growing land in the region of Murcia now produces grapes developed by ITUM.
Esther: In 2012, ITUM reached its first agreement with growers in Chile, which was the first country outside of Spain that had shown an interest in ITUM, almost since the start of the project. So, after Spain, the first country where ITUM grapes arrived was Chile.
Maria Angeles: We signed a “contract of evaluation” with Chilean growers in 2012. At that time, ITUM grapes weren’t yet being commercially produced. The first commercial steps were taken in 2012 in terms of starting to establish relationships with other countries, in this case Chile. However, every year since then, ITUM has been producing new varieties, which are first assessed before moving to the commercial stage.
Esther: Our first objective was exclusively in developing new varieties for growers in Murcia and Spain. It was only later with the interest from Chile and Chilean producers who came to visit us that discussed the possibility of marketing the ITUM varieties outside Spain. But our origin was never as a commercial entity.
Q: What are the principal points of difference of ITUM varieties compared with other table grape breeders?
Manuel: The main characteristics that differentiate our varieties from other programs are the crunchy textures that all of our grapes have. When ITUM started, we looked to varieties that were leaders in the market, such as Superior, Sugraone and Crimson, and our growers asked for grapes that had a similar texture – crunchy or very crunchy.
The growers, who are also the owners of ITUM, were looking for very productive varieties that were easy to handle. In terms of flavor, at the moment we have flavors ranging from neutral through to very sweet, and others with a Muscat-style taste. Fifteen years ago, we also began the task of introducing disease-resistant genetics into our grapes, so they are resistant to the most common grape fungi.
This means that apart from growers being able to save on phytosanitary products and fungicides, consumers are able to have grapes with the minimum possible amount of residues. It also has a positive environmental impact. In this sense, ITUM has been a pioneer within the grape breeding industry.
Q: How far does ITUM want to go as an organization?
Esther: As Buzz Lightyear would say, “To Infinity and Beyond”! We want to have the best possible varieties – agronomically-speaking – in terms of productivity, that have the lowest risk possible, that are resistant to disease and insects, and also rain damage, and which commercially-speaking are the tasty varieties demanded by consumers.
We want to grow grapes that are commercially viable, but which also enable us as growers to make a small profit. That is to say, to be able to make a living through agriculture, and to do that we need the best varieties that we can achieve.
Today, more and more consumers are looking for healthy products, so we are also looking at grapes with antioxidant properties, which can help slow the aging process and instead of doing that through chemicals, we can do it in a more natural way. I should also mention that all of our research is carried out using natural, artisan methods, so our breeding is carried out through traditional means by crossing varieties.
Manuel: Our objective is to offer the best possible varieties from June through to December, which will cover the production season in Spain. We have been working on the development of varieties with antioxidant properties over the past seven years by crossing table grapes with wine grapes to achieve good sizing, crunchiness and taste with the distinctive red flesh of wine grapes.
Apart from being visually distinctive, the skin of these grapes has antioxidant characteristics. However, the project is still in development, and we expect it to take another 12 months before it becomes commercially available.
Q: How are other markets outside of Spain developing for ITUM?
Esther: As well as Chile, we are working in Peru and also have possibilities in Argentina. Right now, we are studying opportunities in the United States, which we see as a market with huge potential for ITUM grapes, so that is a priority for us. We are getting to know growers there and are presenting varieties that we believe would fit in with growing conditions in the US.
Maria Angeles: In the US, we are getting to know companies and producers. We are going to participate in the IFPA Show and, in the future, probably other events. The potential is enormous, and we are trying to find the right point of entry into the US market.
Manuel: At the moment, ITUM has a presence across the five continents: in Australia, as a producer for Asia-Pacific market; in India, covering the rest of Asia; South Africa and Namibia for Africa; Peru and Chile in South America; and, of course, in Europe.
Esther: Once we started promoting ITUM varieties outside Spain, we wanted to reach all producers who might be interested in our seedless grapes. Our expectation is that these varieties will reach more growers and marketers because we want consumers to enjoy them.
Q: Looking ahead to the future, what do you see as being the most important trends to come in table grapes?
Manuel: It is because we are looking to the future that we are continuing to innovate. At the start of the ITUM project, we concentrated on crossing traditional varieties, but taking into account the subject of climate change – and because Murcia has different phases of hot weather during the whole campaign, covering flowering, growth and maturation of the grapes – when we experience changes in climate, even not that extreme, we have problems with the colorization, sugar absorption and maturation of varieties. So, this is the first work that we are carrying out to make sure the grapes acclimatize better to extreme changes in the weather and temperature.
Q: Do you have anything else you would like to mention?
Esther: We would love to invite readers to try our varieties, because when you try them, you really realize that what we are selling is already a reality; it’s not something that is coming in the future.
The latest varieties we have developed have a lot of flavor, which in itself is an achievement because as an organization we have limited resources as we are subsidized by the growers themselves. Now, we have a lot of varieties available, but it was very difficult at the beginning because the growers were paying, and they didn’t see (immediate) results. But the effort that our growers have made in being patient has meant we now have our grapes available and have also received interest from producers in Chile and other countries. This interest made us realize that ITUM grapes were capable of reaching other markets.
But for me the achievement that is more important is the fact that ITUM is 100% funded by the growers who have put their faith in research and development and innovation. As soon as people take a chance on our varieties and taste them, they find them really satisfying.
When Whole Foods moved to acquire Wild Oats in 2007, we wrote a piece titled, Whole Foods & Wild Oats Finally Tie the Knot, which challenged the FTC’s analysis of the merger. The FTC was looking at some mythical category of health-oriented supermarkets and thus perceived the merger to have significant anti-competitive aspects — while, in fact, health-oriented foods were also sold in conventional supermarkets, warehouse clubs and many other outlets.
The incident comes to mind when thinking about the proposed merger of SNFL (Special New Fruit Licensing) and IFG (International Fruit Genetics). If we were to focus only on the big four – Sun World, SNFL, IFG and Grapa – and were ignorant of all the other things happening in the grape industry, one could perceive this proposed merger as anti-competitive. But just as one would really understand the supermarket industry and knew that Wild Oats was insignificant as a competitor, if you knew the reality of breeding today, you would realize it is a field on the verge of exploding with competition.
ITUM is a perfect example. As a relatively small region of producers, bound together to avoid being dependent on any of the established breeders, ITUM was able to start its own breeding operation.
In California, we are starting to see individual shippers acquiring rights to varieties, such as Pristine, in order to differentiate themselves as we are also seeing increased efforts by the USDA in California, UC Davis and the California Table Grape Commission.
Bottom line: The options for grape producers seem to be exploding. Of course, this means the options for consumers will explode as well.