TE PUKE, New Zealand—Striding among orchards laden with fruit for export here, scientists in rubber boots and shorts scratch their heads and wonder if they have bitten off more than they can chew.
The problem isn't a lack of kiwis—the exotic green fruit that appears in everything from breakfast bowls to juice blends. A sunny summer has ripened them perfectly. Instead, the vexing issue is the kiwifruits' skin—it is furry and brown as it has been for decades.
Yet scientists and fruit fans agree: this is one industry where it's better not to have skin in the game.
"When you actually look at the top 10 fruits in the world, six of the top 10 are convenience products," says Lain Jager, chief executive of Zespri Group Ltd., the world's biggest exporter of kiwis. "Having a kiwifruit that you could eat in a convenient way would be fantastic."(click below to read more)
Indeed, consumers tend to be a bit prickly on the issue. "The brown hair just sticks to everything even when you peel it off," says Penni Ward, who skins the fruit before she feeds it to her 5-year-old daughter Ava at their home in Auckland. A knife is usually required to pierce the fruit; then perhaps a spoon to scoop it out.
Zespri is plowing millions of dollars into research and development of a fruit with either an edible or easy-peel skin. New Zealand's government is backing the endeavor with taxpayer funds, hoping for a breakthrough that can add a new engine to an economy that is already reliant on dairy and other agricultural exports.
In the process, both hope to broaden the kiwi's status to lunchbox staple, eventually taking on apples, grapes, pears and the like. Even bananas and mandarins have an edge over kiwis since each has a skin that can be easily peeled back without muss or fuss.
Auckland mom Megan Willmott says her 2-year-old daughter "will make a big choking display as if I'm poisoning her" if any skin remains on the fruit she eats. So far, she says, bananas are winning out.
New Zealand began growing kiwis commercially in the 1930s using berries imported from southern China. The fruit became popular with American servicemen based in New Zealand during World War II. When the Cold War intensified in the 1950s, the political connotations of the fruit's historic name, the Chinese gooseberry, proved unpalatable. So New Zealanders rebranded it as the kiwifruit—kiwi for short—due to its resemblance to the country's chubby, long-beaked native bird.
In the small rural town of Te Puke, kiwis aren't just another option for the fruit bowl—they're a way of life. The town of around 7,000 residents and 2,500 orchards styles itself as the Kiwifruit Capital of the World and even has a theme park dedicated to the oval-shaped fruit. Towering over the Kiwi360 park is a 40-foot-high kiwi slice, which visitors can climb before they tour the park in fruit-shaped KiwiKarts. Among the items in the giftshop: kiwifruit lipstick, named for its signature ingredient.
Changing the fleshy food's name is one thing; redesigning the kiwi is a different challenge altogether. Early efforts by Zespri haven't been fruitful.
The science of crossbreeding kiwis with other varieties of wild Chinese gooseberries is one hurdle to cross. A bigger obstacle is the cadre of 17 so-called kiwi sommeliers who are the final arbiters of good taste.
Elizabeth Popowski is one of them. Employed by New Zealand government-owned Plant and Food Research institute, she spends months tasting the new fruit varieties conceived in one of the institute's eight labs. The goal is to find strains with a superior flavor and color that can be developed further.
"I've had ones that made you cry: instant-water-to-the-eyes, hair-standing-up-sour awful," says the American plant geneticist, who grew up on a farm in Ivanhoe, Minn.—about as far from the kiwifruit orchards of New Zealand as one can get.
During the harvest season from May until October, Ms. Popowski says she might eat up to 30 kiwis a day. Thus far, her taste buds have picked up everything from candy flavors to hints of kerosene.
Her bosses are sympathetic to all her slicing and dicing. "It sounds like fun, but eating that much kiwifruit a day is an awful job," says Stuart Kay, Breeding and Genomics Business Manager at the institute.
So far, the kiwi sommeliers have rejected a variety of kiwi with an easy-peel pale gray skin, and a more appealing white fuzz-covered version that contained a vibrant emerald inner flesh. "It tastes vegetable-y—it's bland and lacks sugar," Mr. Kay decreed.
Scientists have also been developing a "novelty" kiwi with a distinctive spicy kick and orange flesh. But they worry there isn't a market for it.
Zespri has higher hopes for the kiwiberry—making it sweet, edible in one bite and with no hairy skin to sour the experience. It comes with its own headaches. The skin bruises easily and it has a limited shelf life—a downer for exporting to markets such as the U.S.
The development of the naked kiwi could be a huge boost to an industry already worth $1 billion to New Zealand's economy. In recent years, New Zealand has had to compete with upstart exporters like Chile looking to gain a bigger share of the global fruit market.
Innovation has already helped New Zealand stave off another threat. Two years ago, Zespri released a new variety of gold kiwifruit that is less susceptible to a bacteria which wiped out two-thirds of the original gold plants in 2010.
Mr. Jager's loftier goal remains unfulfilled. But Ms. Popowksi isn't deterred. She's already back in training for the coming season, munching a kiwi a day to prime her taste buds for the onslaught of fruit ahead.
Meanwhile, not everybody is anxious for progress on the kiwi front. Hinerangi Vaimoso, a public-relations manager from Auckland, is slightly perturbed at the idea of altering the fruit's signature outer layer. "I like the kiwifruit," she says. "Skin and all."