Savings in labor and crop protection plus increased yield and quality provide excellent return on investment.
Growing plants commercially is challenging for so many reasons, farmers wonder sometimes why they do it. Weather, disease, insects, and labor issues are among the numerous problems faced every day. But imagine growing tomatoes without Verticillium and Fusarium disease resistance. Now, we have tomatoes resistant to these diseases plus nematodes, Alternaria, tobacco mosaic virus, Stemphylium and tomato spotted wilt virus, often all in the same plant. We have cucumbers resistant to downy mildew, powdery mildew, cucumber mosaic virus and Anthracnose. We also have lettuce resistant to bolting and broccoli and cucumbers bred for mechanical harvesting. All of these innovations and hundreds more reduce input costs and allow higher yields.
Farming is still hard, no question, but it would be harder without seed innovations that make advancements in disease, pest, and drought resistance, enhanced shelf life, increased fruit set and ease of harvest possible.
Need for New Innovations Continues
Of course, the job isn’t done; diseases and pest are continually evolving, consumer expectations for flavor and nutritional value are changing, and the climate is becoming more challenging.
“The investment made into seed innovations lifts the whole vegetable industry,” says James Weatherly, Executive Director of the Seed Innovation and Protection Alliance. “Because of this investment, we are able to produce more vegetables that are healthier and more nutritious, while using fewer resources.”
John Schoenecker, Director of Intellectual Property for HM. CLAUSE, says innovative new varieties help growers solve challenges in the supply chain and support better quality produce at the grocer.
“Improved quality helps reduce waste and support repeat purchases,” he says. “Improved consumer qualities, like smaller watermelon, help smaller households eat more produce with less waste. And it’s a partnership; growers constantly evolve their production techniques, and to be successful, plant breeders work to develop new varieties that fit these new systems.”
The innovations aren’t cheap. The years of breeding, selecting seed, trials, storage, and the land, labs, employees and other facilities required to bring just one new variety to market can cost upwards of $1 million per year.1 The average time to produce a successful new lettuce variety, for example, is 7 to 10 years, and there’s no guarantee that any of the hundreds of thousands of new plants that are evaluated during the trials will be successful. Breeding companies, like producers, need to remain profitable in order to remain in business.
While these seed technologies may cost more, it pays off for growers. Schoenecker says the whole focus of plant breeding is to bring new and better varieties to the marketplace.
“It is probably safe to say that all new varieties have an improvement, or they would not have made it to market,” Schoenecker says. “There are many examples, from new levels of downy mildew resistance in spinach, where plant breeders have to run to stay ahead of the pathogen, to carrots with better flavor and crunch for the baby carrot market. Really the list of improvements is almost endless.
“Companies work hard to test varieties in the market before they make the investment to bring a new variety forward. Many breeders work in or near major production areas and have on-going contact with growers and marketers of fresh and processed product. It is this constant involvement that helps breeders understand the needs of the value chain and anticipate future variety requirements. It is a constant evolution based on market and consumer wants and needs.”
Investment Yields Big Returns
“Many studies show that the return on investment is well worth it in terms of reduced inputs, increased yield, varietal purity and freedom from weeds,” Weatherly says. “You may pay more, but you get far more in return, and 95% of producers recognize that.”
Weatherly says it may seem that saving seed from year to year to avoid purchasing it is cheaper, the storage, cleaning, additional inputs due to weed contamination, the reduced yield from genetic drift (uneven genetics as a result of cross breeding) are hidden costs that often aren’t considered.
“Saving seed just doesn’t have the costs savings people might think,” Weatherly says. “One of the biggest hidden costs is decreased yield potential. Every generation of seed you save reduces the genetic potential of that seed.”
Another potential cost is fines for violating intellectual property rights. These rights protect the substantial investment companies put into developing new seed technologies. If the seed is not purchased legally, there are significant risks, including lost profits, liability for any damages, as well as statutory damages.
The industry also loses when seed innovations are acquired or saved illegally.
“Breeders invest an average of 23% of revenue back into R & D to develop new innovations,” Weatherly says. “When you do the math, loosing that 23% means that approximately $24 million could have been invested back into new varieties and technologies. Seed innovations provide benefits that make it possible for growers to be profitable, and of course, feed an increasing population. We want to make sure that research continues.”
1 Source, Seed Innovation and Protection Alliance members