Dutch growers started internationalizing at the end of the 20th century, expanding production activities to countries such as Spain. For Dutch seed companies this started several decades before already. Bert Schrijver of Bejo tells us more.
Bert Schrijver is happy to talk about internationalization in the vegetable seed industry. But it takes some juggling to set up an interview date. As director of research and breeding for the quintessentially Dutch seed company Bejo, he’s often on the road, sometimes in far-flung places. The company breeds new varieties in a range of climate zones in multiple countries on five continents. Bejo's assortment consists of almost 50 crops in around 1,200 varieties and 6,000 product forms.
With such a wide range, it’s tricky to coordinate all the breeding programs, keeping an eye on the desires and demands of the market and what's achievable in breeding and seed production. Six global crop research managers, each responsible for breeding in a particular crop group, keep the processes on the right track, in close collaboration with Schrijver.
Of almost 2,000 staff worldwide, around 450 Bejo employees are involved in breeding and research activities. "When I started to work at Bejo in 1982 to set up disease resistance breeding programs, I was one of 50 employees at the company,” Schrijver recalls at Bejo’s headquarters in Warmenhuizen (the Netherlands). "The first steps towards internationalization were underway by then, with the focus still mainly on Western European countries."
Bejo was founded in a 1978 merger between the seed companies Beemsterboer, situated in Warmenhuizen, and Jacob Jong, situated in Noord-Scharwoude. They’d been working together on hybridization in cabbage, carrots and onions since the 1960s. The technology for creating hybrid varieties by crossing two inbred parent lines was developed in that decade and brought many advantages over open pollinated varieties in terms of cultivation technique and quality. But creating hybrids was expensive and time-consuming and was often a bridge too far for small-scale seed companies, which mostly did their own varietal selection in those days. The partnership between Jacob Jong and Beemsterboer led to the first hybrid varieties of cabbage and onion appearing on the market in the second half of the 1970s. The companies realised they’d end up marketing the same hybrids to the same customers. Joining forces was the logical next step. So they merged into a new company: Bejo.
Those first cabbage and onion hybrids were soon followed by the first carrot hybrids. The new range of hybrid varieties did well internationally, and Bejo began to grow. Before long, it was time to set up subsidiaries in other countries, such as Germany, France and Italy. Seed production was originally a regional activity. In the cases of these crops, though, the changeable Dutch weather wasn’t ideal. The company soon decided to expand seed production to France and Italy. By the late 1980s and 1990s, Bejo’s success made it possible to start working on a full range of open-field vegetables. It also expanded to the US, southern European and Eastern European markets, opening subsidiaries there.
Schrijver jumps ahead to the years after 2000, following a lengthy period of steady internationalization for the company. Bejo began producing seed in the US, because of the climate and in order to spread risks across multiple sites. But since the US and Europe are both in the northern hemisphere, their growing seasons are synchronous, meaning seed production is too. "So we also moved into the southern hemisphere,” Schrijver says, “with seed production facilities in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina. Those were really big operations."
“Breeding crops and producing seed in commercial quantities are two different matters”, Schrijver adds. “So they don’t necessarily take place in the same locations or even the same parts of the world. For instance, day length is important in onion breeding, and requirements for breeding a particular crop with respect to climate and market demand can be so specific that it needs to be done locally. Hence, about 40% of breeding at Bejo takes place outside the Netherlands”.
"That expansion started in the 1980s,” Schrijver recalls. “At the time, we were able to use the results of our existing breeding program to get off to a flying start in the Eastern European markets. The genetics we had for southern Europe weren’t as good, so we needed to breed locally. We started in Italy."
After that, the company was able to test promising crosses and new varieties in other countries with similar growing conditions and market requirements. Schrijver likens the situation to a patchwork quilt spread across continents. "We can conduct tests at subsidiaries or with local dealers or farmers, and that way we can figure out which crosses or varieties are most suitable."
Back to Warmenhuizen
Just as all breeding is overseen by in-house specialists and carried out at Bejo’s own sites, the company stores all its own commercial seed and handles all purity and quality checks, processing and treatments. All Bejo seed passes through Bejo’s processing operations in Warmenhuizen. From here, it’s shipped all over the world in various product forms and distributed by subsidiaries in more than 30 countries, and by dealers and distributors in many other countries.
Bejo delivers seed in many different product forms. "For most crops, we supply seed in different sizes, varying by 0.2 millimetres, for example,” Schrijver says. “Seed can be left untreated, or it can be treated chemically or with hot water to ensure it's disease-free. It can be coated with a range of agents and/or be pelleted. And different countries sometimes have additional requirements, often phytosanitary ones."
It's not only internationalization that's progressed rapidly – so have technological developments supporting the global breeding process and seed technology research. At Bejo’s Research Center in Warmenhuizen, more than 120 employees work on resistance breeding, tissue culture, cell biology, molecular markers, genomics, bioinformatics, seed physiology and seed pathology. Much breeding work previously done in greenhouses and fields has been replaced or accelerated thanks to continuous progress in these disciplines of technologies, such as genotyping in the laboratory and checking levels of disease resistance of breeding material and new varieties. Since the turn of the century, Bejo has also had a fully fledged international business unit devoted to the breeding, production and treatment of seeds for organic cultivation. Employees in Warmenhuizen are conducting research to determine the best methods for producing organic seed.
Source: Groenten & Fruit. By Joost Stallen, publication April 10, 2020.