Once upon a time, about 20 years ago, I was involved with Zeraim Gedera, then one of Israel’s leading seed companies. Zeraim was one of the first in the seed sector to develop a vertically integrated approach, addressing the needs of producers and fresh produce chain partners constantly looking for innovative, differentiated, sustainable and cost-effective products.
At that time, I asked a range of European and American suppliers and retailers about the next summit to be conquered in the arena of fresh vegetables. Most respondents indicated that, there being so many segments already on retail shelves, there was little to be done concerning tomatoes. More than one respondent suggested that a pepper without seeds was the item to look for, on the condition that such a trait be 100 per cent reliable.
Back on the ranch (or Zeraim Gedera’s breeding farm), pepper breeder Benny Nir was looking at the seedless issue. The breeding programme was small-scale – “Friday afternoon breeding”, as it’s commonly called in the profession – with neither genetic modification nor fancy trickery, just a classic breeding approach combined with Nir's excellent eye.
The seedless plant combined male sterility in the pepper plant with an excellent level of parthenocarpy. The first trait is very common in peppers, whereas parthenocarpy is more complicated. It is defined as a natural fruit-setting without fertilisation and is also common in peppers. In male sterile plants, it expresses itself only sporadically on the plant with deformed fruits. The innovation has been to develop excellent parthenocarpy, producing marketable fruits all up the plant. In other words, the end-result would be achieved not by genetic manipulation but rather by intelligent selection. Without seeds in the fruit, vegetative propagation was essential.
It came to pass that in 2007, Zeraim Gedera was acquired by Syngenta, building a feasible business model for this highly innovative product, a model that would be eagerly adopted by partners in the fresh produce industry. It was branded by Syngenta under the name of Angello, the seedless mini-pepper that won the Innovation Award at Fruit Logistica in 2012 and reached some supermarket shelves in the UK and Netherlands.
Varietal breeding continued and Benny Nir moved to the stage of producing seeds that would produce plants with seedless fruits. Breedx, established in Israel in 2017 and with the license from Syngenta, hired Benny Nir to continue the seedless pepper programme.
The focus of Breedx is on conventional breeding of specialised vegetables, and the company has developed a highly innovative breeding programme for taste traits of tomatoes with unique shapes. Breedx has recently entered the field of melon breeding, but sweet, tasty seedless peppers are still the leading and most advanced of Breedx’s activities.
Today, Breedx’s sweet, seedless mini-pepper varieties are sold under the Pepperito brand and focus on two snack segments – 1Bite with a length of up to 6cm and a mini-Kapia type with a length of 8-15cm. Additional snack segments are at an advanced breeding stage and are soon set to become commercial.
Today, there are three varieties that can be reproduced by seeds, two for red mini-Kapia, one for red 1Bite, and other varieties, presently grown by vegetative propagation, are ‘on the way’ to seeds.
While red is the dominant colour, there are also yellow and orange varieties in the portfolio. As Breedx CEO Lior Carmeli says, “Our aim is to have the complete colour range for commercial production in each segment over the next two to three years from seeds.”
Today, Breedx seedless peppers are commercially grown in Spain for European markets, in Mexico and Canada for North American markets and in both South Africa and Israel for local markets, with trials ongoing in other markets.