The market for potatoes has been led by the varieties Bintje in Northwest Europe and Russet Burbank in the United States for the past 100 years, but all that is set to change in the era of hybrids. The driving force behind this revolution in potato cultivation is Dutch company Aardevo.
After dominating the market for more than 100 years, the Bintje in Europe and the Russet Burbank in the US are finally being toppled from the throne. The forces behind this aren’t the traditional potato breeders who have been making frantic attempts to create a new top potato for decades, but new market players. The traditional seed potato firms will be overtaken within a decade by hybrid breeders who grow potatoes from seeds. This is more efficient, since less area is needed to grow seed potatoes, and storage, transport and sales are all simpler. Aardevo, based in Nagele in Noordoostpolder, is one of these newcomers, and working enthusiastically on developing new favourites for chips and crisps. Managing Director Paul van den Wijngaard speaks about Aardevo’s ambitions.
When’s it all going to happen? Is the date already set for the launch of your first hybrid potato variety on the market?
“We’ll have a commercially viable diploid variety ready in about eight to ten years. Following this, we plan to introduce an improved variety every four to five years. We aim to be the best, not necessarily the fastest. Our explicit aspiration is to shape the future of potato cultivation."
What do you still have to do during the time to market?
“We were still fully in the research phase until about 18 months ago, but following a successful proof of concept, we realised that what we’re doing is feasible. At the moment, everything is focused on preparing the processes related to the research programme, so we can shortly place the first products from the breeding pipelines on the market. Basically, we’ve taken the first steps towards scaling up."
What about the technical aspects? What are you working on in this area?
“It’s important to bear in mind that new varieties must always represent an improvement. The most important potato characteristic that growers want right away is phytophthora resistance. Once this has been established, other problems can be dealt with, such as nematodes and other diseases. The second step is to develop a variety that performs well in various conditions. The big advantage is that we can improve quality, resistance and yields faster than with conventional breeding.”
This hybrid project has already been running for a few years. What’s the biggest challenge right now?
“We’re not just facing one major challenge. There are a number of areas where we still have to define our approach, such as the R&D challenge of generating inbreeding lines. In terms of cultivation, we haven’t completely resolved the issue of obtaining botanical seed directly from products grown for consumption. We also have to sort out the production and supply chain."
The potato sector is very interested in the new varieties, but is it ready to grow them in practice?
“Growing from seed obviously requires changes to the machinery, which is currently designed completely around tubers. It means that seed potato growers are going to have to adapt to a new model, as will growers of potatoes for consumption at a later stage. We’ve carried out some sowing tests with rapeseed planting machines. These function mechanically, but still need some work, and the same applies to crop development at the end user."
So it’s more than a simple switchover?
“Yes, other steps are needed. We have to help with technical marketing, and assist growers in making the transition. Cultivation support is an integral part of the product."
Your core business alone offers a world-class opportunity, but do you see other opportunities within it?
“Plant protection products are being increasingly regulated in Europe and even the United States. Five years ago, people still thought it was OK to use chemicals if no alternatives were available. These days, the tendency is to avoid chemicals altogether. Authorisations to use substances are being withdrawn or not extended, even when there are no alternatives available. This poses a threat to the sector, but offers an opportunity to the breeder who becomes the alternative. It might sound a bit dramatic, but it’s fair to say that the century of chemistry has ended, and we’re now entering the century of breeding. Breeding has, of course, had a major positive impact on global food production for 70 years, but it will take on an even greater role in the coming century. "
Aardevo is a joint venture of KWS from Germany and Simplot from the US. Does that affect your work in Nagele?
“Not much. The shareholders do steer things to some extent, but Aardevo has a wide mandate to take its own decisions. It was a deliberate decision to give us so much independence, so that we can get through this phase and scale up rapidly. It avoids the bureaucratic processes and procedures which can otherwise hinder the progress of a "small project" in a large international group. It’s very pleasant, and working really well in our current scaling-up phase. Proactive and entrepreneurial employees in particular can really make a big contribution at this stage."
In your own words, we’re entering the age of breeding. How does that feel?
“Fantastic! It’s exactly why I started doing this, so I could contribute to something completely new that will have a major impact on sustainable food production around the globe. When I was given this unique opportunity to be part of this innovation, my only thought was; It’s now or never!'