On the heels of the successful Third Symposium on Edible Alliaceae in Georgia, USA and the International Allium Symposium held in Adelaide five years ago, Australia hosted ‘Onions 2002’ at the National Vegetable Industry Centre at Yanco Agricultural Institute in NSW in June this year. The gathering drew 130 onion growers, seed merchants and researchers from the USA, Australia and New Zealand.
The development of less pungent onion varieties with adequate storage, able to be grown successfully down-under, flavoured the two-day conference.
In the opening presentation, Dr. Rick Jones, a short day onion breeder from Texas, USA, described the success of sweet ‘mild’ onion production and marketing in the USA. Dr. Jones, said producing countries were responding to the importation of sweet onions into the USA.
New export marketing opportunities were discussed by Phillip Armbruster from NSW Agriculture Agsell, who commented that total world onion exports in 2000 were 3.6 million tonnes. Australia exported 41,663 tonnes of its 247,000 tonnes production, compared to NZ exporting 230,082 tonnes of its 290,000 production.
A regional roundup concluded with a report on the NZ situation by Peter Ryan from May and Ryan, NZ. He explained that a total of about 150 growers on 5,000 hectares (about 600-700 more than Australia), harvest onions from December to March with 30% of the crops hand harvested and the remainder done by machine, with 80% of the total production exported. Mr. Ryan said NZ consumption per capita is 7kg. He revealed the main threats to export are disease, weather, cyclic global crop availability and NZ currency fluctuations. In addition, he reported that sales are not always secure, as most shipments go on consignment due to the export market often being oversupplied.
Onion specialists from both sides of the Tasman, spoke on a variety of industry related topics. Of particular interest to NZ growers, are trials in Tasmania, where growing conditions are similar to NZ, to determine whether botrytis allii - storage neck rot, can be prevented by removing onion tops at different times during curing. Other relevant trials using DADS - Diallyl disulfide, to deal with onion white rot (sclerotium cepivorum) show significant impact on reducing this disease, while success has also been achieved using the biological control agent, Trichoderma SPP.
Details of a new online trading and communication programme, for buying and selling produce in Australia were revealed. The exciting topic of ‘mild’ onions able to be eaten raw, with potential increased health benefits to consumers, was reflected in several presentations and workshops looking at current research into health aspects, breeding and marketing.
This included a report by Ms. Samantha Sterling of Agriculture Victoria Institute for Horticultural Development, on her current research. Ms. Sterling explained that natural compounds in onions, including sulphur based compounds, offer health benefits to consumers e.g. protection against heart disease by helping control cholesterol and tryglyceride levels; helping in cancer prevention, diabetes and asthma; anti blood clotting properties. She reported the purpose of the research is to identify premium onion varieties offering maximum health advantages, in conjunction with trials in various locations in Australia and Pukekohe in Auckland New Zealand, to identify optimum growing conditions and practices.
Mr. Lewis Lydon of Yates Vegetable Seeds in New Zealand, whose company is involved in the trials, spoke of the origins and development of ‘Anzac’ onion varieties. He said derivates of the famous Pukekohe Longkeeper in NZ, which dates back to the 1930’s, still dominate the NZ onion market. Mr. Lydon commented that unlike many of the US seed companies who have benefited from government and University funded breeding programs, ‘we have to very much go it alone’.
However, some government funded research by Alan Duff and William O’Donnell is underway at the Centre for Vegetable Crops at Gatton Research Station for the Queensland Department of Primary Industries. They described the results of Queensland varietal evaluation trials, where milder types of onions suit the sub-tropical growing environment. Mr. Duff explained that obtaining varieties with consistent milder flavour or lower pungency (measured by the level of pyruvic acid concentration) is essential to the ongoing success of this industry.
Flavour was also at the heart of the paper given by Kiwi experts, Dr. John McCullum and Colin Eady, Crop and Food Research, Christchurch. They offered an overview of the molecular genetics of onion flavour, the impacts of modern genetic technologies and research and future prospects for breeding and agronomy.
The first day finished with a ‘mild’ onion workshop lead by South Australian grower Doug Marks, which supported mild onion development but suggested the market should be consumer not grower driven. Importance was attached to worldwide similarity/consistency of pungency testing with a trained tasting panel considered the ultimate way to measure pungency. Certification, marketing and research, specialist handling by retailers and packaging were other concerns.
Tony Biggs, concluded the conference by facilitating a discussion on a strategic plan review to firm up a list of recommendations for the best use of the new voluntary levy on Australian onion growers. Unlike the general vegetable levy in place in NZ, this is matched $1 for $1 by the Commonwealth Government. Much of the discussion echoed the ‘mild’ onion workshop, plus general onion issues. An interesting comment related to testing new concepts, suggested that consumers do not always know what they want until they see it.