Improving food production and making it sustainable
As a result of the growing global population the demand for food is increasing. At the same time available agricultural land for food production is decreasing.
“Making use of better varieties and better cultivation methods so that each hectare of land produces more food will provide us with the ability to produce sufficient vegetables,” says John-Pieter Schipper, CEO of Bejo. The company is involved in breeding vegetable varieties and in producing and selling vegetable seeds.
How does breeding contribute to better yield?
“Plants are basically vulnerable. Often, not all seeds germinate and the plants they produce are not sufficiently resistant to diseases. By improving the quality of varieties through means of breeding, the seed’s ability to germinate can be strengthened and the crop’s resistance to diseases can be improved.” “An additional advantage is that a resistant variety does not need to be treated with crop protection agents or at least less so,” adds R&D Director Bert Schrijver. “This way you not only work more effectively and efficiently, you are also more focused on protecting the environment.”
Is disease-resistance the only issue?
“Definitely not,” says Schipper. “By means of breeding you can also make varieties more suitable for growth under certain conditions. Varieties for hot and dry regions require different characteristics than varieties for a more moderate or humid climate. This is why we work together with local growers throughout the world, so that we can specifically develop varieties that are suitable for their situation. We also advise growers in applying cultivation techniques to enable them to achieve the best possible yield.”
Which techniques are used by Bejo in developing new varieties?
“Breeding involves the application of characteristiecs that a variety already naturally possesses,” Schipper explains. “In breeding you do this by cross-breeding and selection. “By means of new breeding techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas9, you achieve this faster because you can apply a desired modification to a gene very precisely and at exactly the desired location.” With this method you can significantly reduce the development time of a variety, which otherwise normally would take about ten to fifteen years. In addition, Bejo also applies the most modern seed technologies to obtain the maximum result from the seed. Such as applying a coating to the seed and adding a minimal quantity of a crop protection agent. This layer protects the seed during the germinating process and reduces the number of spray applications in the field. This makes a major contribution to making the crop sustainable. However, changes in current EU regulations presently are significantly constraining the application of this technology.”
Do these rules apply globally?
“Unfortunately not,” Schipper replies. “There is a patchwork of rules and Europe generally applies stricter rules than other continents. We have the feeling that many of these rules are not sufficiently based on scientific grounds. It has been proven that coated seeds ultimately lead to considerably less use of crop protection agents in the field. And genome editing, provided it is applied within the same plant species, in fact is nothing more than accelerating the breeding process and a tool to be able to accomplish this effectively and precisely. Developing new varieties enables you to more quickly anticipate changing growing and climate conditions and the emergence of new diseases and pests.”
How does the development of better varieties contribute to biodiversity?
“Plant breeding benefits from the broad availability of genetic material,” says Schrijver. “We work together with gene banks throughout the world, such as the gene bank in Wageningen (CGN). Seed breeding companies support gene banks in maintaining their unique collections. The genetic material they manage can be used again by breeding companies as a basis for developing new varieties. Biodiversity and access to genetic material is essential for the success of breeding programmes.”
“Another way in which we contribute to biodiversity is our bee colonies,” Schrijver continues. “Bejo specialises in vegetable crops for open fields. In over eighty percent of Bejo’s crops, tens of thousands of bee colonies are used for pollination in the seed production process. Through research we attempt to improve bee health and make a contribution to reducing global bee mortality.”
In addition to sustainable agriculture, is organic agriculture one of Bejo’s aims as well?
“We have been carrying an organic assortment for over twenty years,” says Schipper. “On the one hand we do this to learn how to deploy the technologies used for organic crop cultivation for conventional cultivation. On the other hand, there is a growing demand for organic vegetables in western countries. We provide organic growers with suitable varieties and high-quality organic seed for them to be able to meet this demand.”
“Organic vegetable cultivation should be the starting point and it is our aim to incorporate this knowledge as much as possible into conventional crop cultivation,” Schipper adds. “Where organic solutions do not perform optimally, fertilisers and crop protection agents are needed to be able to meet the global demand for food. After all, you cannot afford to take risks with the food supply. We consider it our task to make a contribution to a sustainable food supply by developing disease-resistant, robust and productive varieties.”
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