Diversifying Agriculture for Better Lives

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14 August 2012
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Durian on sale near Cirebon

Probing durian for fruit quality, near Cirebon, Java

It would seem it isn’t. After all, durian is a significant fruit in its native range, Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, for example, it ranks first  –in volume and value- amongst all domestically produced fruit. In recent years, China, where the crop is not traditionally known, has begun to develop a taste for durian imported from Thailand, which had a trade value of US$70 million in 2010. Tourism operators (in Malaysia) sell with increasing success travel packages that include tasting tours to durian plantations. Occasionally, durian makes for good headlines, such as the story of a Macau billionaire reported to fly in his personal durian supplies on a private jet.

So, on the surface of it, things seem to be going pretty well for durian. However, we think the crop could be doing even better, indeed much better…

To begin with, durian still has a reputational problem. Articles, such as this one, misleadingly titled “Surviving Durian“, and others comparing durian to smelly feet, sewer and other fetid odours perpetuate “Western prejudice”. Rather than apologising for durian’s aroma, and banning it from hotels, in Asia we should be celebrating the “king of fruits” as an emblematic product of the region. Durian aromas are as varied and complex as those of wine, cocoa or coffee, but developing an appreciation for this complexity is a learning process, and will require a specific vocabulary to describe and communicate specific qualities. Calls for developing “improved” durian varieties with bland flavours abound, but this is like asking for Roquefort cheese with its characteristic aroma removed. Bon appétit!

Secondly, the success of trading rather undifferentiated “commodity” durian from a few clonal varieties –unimaginatively referred to by their clonal selection IDs such as “D24”- leads to the replacement of “durian kampung”, the seed-propagated “village durians” that fetch only low prices owing to their varying and inconsistent quality. Each fruit needs to be opened and probed to judge its quality, and traders and consumers are clearly finding this cumbersome (see picture). Our field observations suggest that durian kampung trees are now being chopped down all over Southeast Asia on a massive scale, and replaced (or grafted) with clonal material. Paradoxically, durian’s success as a commodity erodes the resource base, upon which current sales are based: all “superior” clonal varieties are not the result of breeding efforts, but have been identified amongst elite kampung trees.

Thirdly, we believe that a great opportunity to differentiate durian into a high-value product, permitting greater rural incomes and providing incentives for conservation, is being wasted. Durian in the narrow sense refers to Durio zibethinus, which has much intra-specific diversity of flavour, texture and colour, but there are another eight Durio species with edible fruits that are hardly ever traded outside their native range. There is circumstantial evidence for significant interaction of genetics, location and crop management, which provides scope for the development of durian “terroirs” with unique qualities that may even be deserving of product protection through geographic indications.

In conclusion, we believe that durian is indeed a neglected and under-utilised species: overlooked by science, with much differentiation potential that remains unappreciated by markets and researchers, unprotected from genetic erosion, and suffering from a general lack of development vision.

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