Alan Chambers moved last year to create only-in-Miami food.
He wants to give you a sweeter papaya with an aroma you can pick up from five feet away. He hopes to eventually offer you a mango with smoother flesh (not the kind with the stringy yellow stuff inside). He’s looking for an avocado that grows consistently so you can afford it all the time.
He’d even like to see the return of the Miami lime, a rarity even on the rim of a mojito glass these days.
Chambers came here for the food. He believes that in a place where the climate is so hospitable to tropical fruits, Miamians should enjoy locally grown produce. Here in South Florida, you have the opportunity to eat food that wouldn’t be exactly the same if it were grown in Mexico, California or even North Florida.
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Chambers is not a chef. He’s a scientist. He delves into the molecular recipes of tropical fruits to see if he can find the one that’s best suited to Miami’s soils, precipitation, humidity — and your taste buds.
Chambers works for the University of Florida. In his lab at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, he’s paid to “invent” food that keeps local farmers working and you enjoying the fruits of that innovation.
His success will mean you get fresher food that travels fewer miles and keeps more of your food dollars here where they help your neighbors.
Chambers has a lot of help. In fact, the research center has experts who have been working on better food for years. Chambers joins the team as part of a new generation of scientists with expertise in modern plant-breeding methods.
He has help at home, too. He might be the only dad whose kids ask for a piece of fruit by its experimental breeding number. The brutal honesty of those six kids makes them great taste testers of food created with traditional cross-breeding methods. They’ll also be some of the first mouths to try future fruits that Chambers and his colleagues will discover much more rapidly by borrowing technologies from medicine.
UF/IFAS is all over the state, but with the support of local legislators it has invested a great deal in scientists, labs and other buildings at the Tropical Research and Education Center in the past two years. Now the center’s researchers can work harder than ever to develop new twists on your old favorites, from guavas to bananas to avocados.
State funding made it possible to bring Chambers and others here to work on local challenges. UF/IFAS has added building space and equipment to give these scientists the tools they need to contribute to the health of Miami’s people and its economy.
The new tools and techniques that Chambers and others use to breed new varieties of fruit enable them to make these contributions sooner.
Miami is a special place. It deserves special food. Now.
In the past, it might have taken 10 years to develop a new variety of fruit. But with new technologies, Chambers hopes to do it in a year or two — not after his 9-year-old has graduates from high school.
Chambers and UF/IFAS also want his children to be able to buy local as grown-ups. That means helping local farmers survive plant-eating bugs that hitchhike into Miami on ships and planes, more droughts and hurricanes, and the volatility of markets.
A lot of the science to make that happen will come out of the research center in Homestead. The university, the state, and the local farming community will all continue to work together to make sure that science works for you.
Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.