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UMH researchers are working on a high-quality apricot crop that requires less irrigation water

   ALICANTE, 6 May.

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UMH researchers are working on a high-quality apricot crop that requires less irrigation water


A project led by research staff from the Miguel Hernández University (UMH) of Elche (Alicante) is working on the development of a high-quality apricot crop that requires less water for irrigation, with the aim of making this product a crop " of higher quality, more sustainable and resilient to climate change".

This is the HidroSOStoneFruit project, framed in AGROALNEXT-GVA, an investigation of the complete process, from the analysis of the water needs of fruit trees in the field in a precise way to the perception of the fruit by consumers, through the analysis of the product in the laboratory, as indicated by the academic institution in a statement.

The initiative, financed by the Next Generation funds of the European Union, will contribute to the sustainability of apricot cultivation and to highlight this healthy and typically Mediterranean food. The cultivation of apricot (Prunus armeniaca L.) is quite common in the Mediterranean basin, due to the favorable climatic conditions that this region offers for its development.

In fact, several of the top producers are located in this area. Türkiye, leader in world production, exceeds 800,000 tons; while Spain, located in eighth place, almost reaches 115,000 tons.

However, the lack of rain and the overexploitation of water resources have caused a shortage of water in the Mediterranean basin, which "represents a problem for the viability of this crop."

The professor of Plant Production at the UMH and co-leader of the project, Francisca Hernández García, has stressed that they must optimize the use of water intended for irrigation, since the scarcity of water resources makes it necessary to develop precision tools and strategies that "ensure competitiveness and sustainability of the agricultural sector".

In this scenario, the UMH HidroSOStoneFruit project focuses on the study and optimization of the water needs of apricot cultivation. The objective is to reduce the water footprint of the apricot, that is, to grow it using less water and, at the same time, improve the functional quality of the fruits.

"This would imply apricots that are grown with less water, but that provide more nutrients and are more appealing to consumers," explained the researcher. In this regard, she has pointed out that there are key moments in the life of a plant in which excess or lack of watering influences the composition of its fruits.

These phases, called phenological moments, are embryogenic development, budding, flowering, fruit setting and ripening. According to researchers at the Agri-Food and Agro-Environmental Research and Innovation Institute (CIAGRO-UMH), it is possible to grow apricots with a higher proportion of nutrients if the apricot tree is watered less at certain key times.

"The stress produced by water restriction generates secondary metabolites that can promote the functional properties of the fruit," said Hernández García, who has dedicated years of research to optimizing the cultivation of fruit trees. It is expected that the scientific evidence generated in the HidroSOStoneFruit project will facilitate progress towards the production of stone fruits of higher quality and beneficial for health.

UMH researcher Antonio José Signes Pastor, expert in food chemistry and food safety and co-leader of the project, has indicated that the antioxidant capacity of the fruit "is essential both in the market and to maintain a healthy diet."

Fruit with a higher antioxidant capacity can positively contribute to health by helping to prevent chronic diseases and slow down cellular aging. In addition, phenols - powerful natural antioxidants - play a "crucial role" in protecting the fruit against oxidative stress, thus prolonging its shelf life.

Regarding other organoleptic or sensory properties of the fruit, the researchers of the HidroSOStoneFruit project are analyzing, among other compounds, organic acids, which are formed as a result of metabolic processes in the fruit cells.

The most common organic acids in fruit include citric, malic, tartaric, oxalic and ascorbic (vitamin C) acids. These provide a characteristic sour or bittersweet flavor to the fruit and play an important role in determining its flavor profile.

In addition, they can act as natural preservatives, which helps extend the shelf life of the fruit by inhibiting the growth of microorganisms. They can also influence the texture and firmness of the fruit, as well as its color and ability to resist disease.

In the medium and long term, the HidroSOStoneFruit project, in which researchers from the Murcia Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Research and Development (IMIDA) also participate, will contribute to the development of apricot cultivation "with greater environmental awareness", by using less irrigation water and because it is expected that the fruits obtained under this irrigation system "will have a longer useful life, which contributes to the reduction of food waste." Likewise, they have pointed out that it is expected that the results obtained for apricot can be extrapolated to other stone crops.

The HidroSOStoneFruit project, framed in the Agroalnext initiative of the Generalitat Valenciana and financed with Next Generation funds from the European Union, will benefit producers and distributors of stone fruit trees, as well as consumers and other interested parties, and the conservation of resources water resources of the Mediterranean region.