Career Profiles

Travis Banks

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Travis Banks – Vineland Research & Innovation Centre

Crops for Canadian tastes

Did you know that many, if not most, of the fruits and vegetables we eat were developed outside Canada? It’s not a bad thing, but it can mean that those crops are harder to grow here and might potentially not be optimally suited for the flavours and textures which Canadians enjoy. Travis Banks, Director of Plant Variety Development at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Ontario’s Niagara region, is trying to change that aspect. Banks and his colleagues work with companies and other groups to develop and trial new crops. The results of those trials help inform as to whether the crop in question will be a commercial success in Ontario, and Canada more generally. “The companies we’ve partnered with have Vineland trial their commercial or non-released material, and we see which ones do well in Canada,” says Banks, identifying unique disease pressures, and shorter or colder growing seasons, as primary hurdles faced by those growing crops developed outside Canada. Greenhouse tomatoes offer an example of a crop which could be improved to match local weather conditions. “The vast majority of greenhouse vegetable varieties are all bred in The Netherlands. The climate conditions in Europe are not what we see in Ontario. We get a lot more sunlight every year, and in the summer, it just doesn’t cool off at night. We don’t have that nice daytime-nighttime temperature difference which most current tomato varieties want.” Researchers at Vineland also breed their own crop varieties, currently focusing on apples, tomatoes, and roses. Along with making them more resilient in the field or greenhouse, however, consumer preference research is also included in all Vineland’s breeding programs. This involves analysts identifying and describing a range of flavours, aromas and textures — sort of like a wine sommelier — and testing different crop varieties with consumers. “For example, we take different apples to consumers — usually in Toronto because of the diversity of people and food preferences — and they can really tell us if they like something. We can take those two data sets and then understand why consumers prefer one variety over another,” Banks says, adding “texture is often the big one. Nobody likes a mealy apple.” “It’s really about creating something people are going to use and enjoy.”