Oct 16, 2014
Targeted breeding aids vegetable seeds

Meeting market demand in a more efficient and profitable manner could be accelerated for plant breeders, seed companies and commercial vegetable growers in the not too distant future.

Working closely with the seed-growing community, and recognizing the development of refined breeding techniques throughout the globe, North American vegetable seed manufacturers could be among those “more able to exactly breed what they’re looking for.”

Those are the observations shared by Andrew “Andy” LaVigne, president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA).

Though not entirely a new development, LaVigne pointed to efforts in the research and education community to map a large number of varieties and crops “to get a much better idea of the genetic map that a breeder’s looking for.” Such approaches could enhance the ability of vegetable producers to meet the demands of their consumer base.

“They’re looking for a way from concept – not the old (Gregor Johann) Mendel approach of select, plant and pray – when looking for size, color, brix, resistance. Now in many cases they’re learning what to look for on the genetic map. Breeders are more able to meet market demand through this more refined selection process.

“We think it’s a plus, especially for the vegetable market,” he said. “We’re working with the U.S. government and others to be sure it’s not looked at like biotech (GMOs) or from a regulatory standpoint that would adversely impact the vegetable market. We’re looking for the ability to take advantage of these technologies and techniques.”

LaVigne has had a 25-year career in government relations, public affairs advocacy and management. He now represents ASTA, founded in 1883 and consisting of more than 700 companies involved in seed production and distribution, plant breeding and related industries in North America. As an authority on plant germplasm, ASTA advocates science and policy issues of industry-wide importance.

“The vegetable seed industry is strong right now,” LaVigne said. “We’re looking at changes in the marketplace as far as consumer demand going forward.”

He said that marketplace includes supermarkets, restaurants and take-out businesses that are seeking “new and innovative vegetable colors, size, greens – everything people are trying to do in the whole foodie movement.”

“There are a lot of new opportunities in the market,” he said. “There is a lot of variety development going on and enhanced breeding techniques.”

He said the industry has worked with the research community, including land-grant universities and USDA, to map “a number of different varieties over the last 10 years. Now, as breeders look at varieties, they can look at characteristics to make the product more marketable.”

He said varieties that lead to producing such offerings as seedless watermelons, different-color peppers and more attractive lettuce options can help boost profits for the vegetable industry as a whole.

“Look at the breadth of varieties that make up the tomato, lettuce family – insert the vegetable of your choice – look at what their makeup is,” LaVigne said. “It’s exciting from that standpoint.”

He said vegetable growers can benefit by working with their seed brokers to determine what’s being sourced in various markets.

“What are the restaurants looking for? What are the processed producers or processed salads people looking for, and what are produce marketers looking for? Breeders are more closely relating with that end distributor, whether it be supermarkets, restaurants or the consumer directly.

“Instead of breeding for yield or brix, they’re trying to breed for the end consumer,” LaVigne said.

Interaction between seed producers and vegetable growers can lead to identification of opportunities for the seed companies, as well as the growing community. They each could influence what the other is doing in order to identify niches and specialty products that are evolving in the marketplace, LaVigne said.

Seed firms are growers

Seed companies and their growers producing seed are dealing with the same challenges faced by the larger commercial vegetable-growing community.

“Pests and disease – natural things – are faced by all of us,” he said. “Seed companies are also growers first. They have to grow it to harvest the seed. Looking at how to cultivate and get the seed from that crop afterward – it’s a lot of the same problems.

“In the breeding process, you breed for natural resistance,” he said. “When producing a crop for seed, you manage it even more intensely than a normal vegetable crop. There’s a lot of scouting. You have to be able to harvest that seed with no ‘off types.’ If there’s infestation, hopefully you can do a smaller (control) application in a smaller sector of the field.”

He said there is more consideration being given to adding seed treatments with pesticide or fungicide to put a “balloon protection” on the seed. This also enhances the germination and production of the planting.

“They’ve been working on coatings and other methods to bulk up seed,” he said. “Typically, you put a clay layer on the seed to get it a little bigger to help in handling for planting.

“If you put a coating on, it can lead to a more manageable and better set,” he said. “Seed companies are working with farmers to ensure the highest possible germination and set to the seed. The seed producer will see more of that in the future.”

Global phytosanitary issues, world trade regulations and environmental concerns all have an impact on seed production, handling and transport.

“In California, restrictions on water because of the drought has been a severe issue for us,” LaVigne said. “Ensuring they have the water to deal with makes it tough for the seed producer.”

He said the drought conditions have led to uncertainty in the grower community, impacting the amount of available planted acreage for seed development and thus reducing seed production.

“There is less land planted due to availability,” LaVigne said. “There’s been an ability to counter it in some cases, with seed produced seasonally and further south into Mexico, Chile and other places in the world. When it’s winter here, we can produce crops in the Southern Hemisphere.”

Biotech movement

Inroads into the biotech side of the industry are on a slow path for vegetable seed companies, LaVigne said. He acknowledged that some areas – such as Asia – could benefit more from biotech products due to more intense disease and pest pressure.

“There’s been work done in the biotech area, but it’s more outside of us,” he said. “The whole regulatory approval continues to be a challenge getting through the government process. I don’t see a lot of activity there in the marketplace because of the regulations, and the (lack of) market acceptance in terms of biotechnology. “There are challenges in the marketplace and the understanding of (biotech agricultural products),” he said. “We’re getting over some of the misinformation that’s been damaging to current crops that are biotech. It makes it unlikely there will be any dramatic increases in the vegetable area in the near future.”

LaVigne anticipates little impact on the seed industry from the pending implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

“We’re working with grower groups, United Fresh and FDA from a seed perspective,” he said. “There’s been extensive work (to identify) seedborne diseases. In looking for any pathogen-related diseases, they haven’t been able to identify any (from seed products). There’s no concern with respect to human transfer of pathogens from seed to the vegetable.”

He said the biggest concern has surrounded sprouts and what impact the FSMA regulations could have on their use and production.

“Sprouts are a different challenge,” he said. “Sprouts for the sprout market go through a much more enhanced process. The challenge is a lot of sprout producers buy sprout seeds, and we’ve identified at least 27 different crops used for sprouts. (That includes) everything from alfalfa, soybean – a lot of things harvested as soon as it germinates and you have sprout in the ground. A majority of those crops being looked at are not grown for sprout seed.

“We’re continuing to work with FDA and United Fresh to say if a seed company is producing seed for crops they need to follow the food label,” LaVigne said.

Gary Pullano

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