Key Challenges and Opportunities Facing the Global Vegetable and Flower Seed Industry: emerging pathogens, new technology, and climate change

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ClimateAi recently spoke at the American Seed Trade Association’s 60th annual Vegetable & Flower virtual conference about how climate and agronomic data is revolutionizing the seed industry, and how leading seed companies are already using this momentum to turn climate disruption into a competitive advantage (email us at media@climate.ai for exclusive access to the 30-minute presentation).

We were joined by representatives from large and small seed companies who gathered to discuss what lies ahead for this important segment of the seed industry. (For more information on the critical challenges and opportunities in other segments of the seed industry, you can check out our synthesis of ASTA’s Corn, Soybean, and Sorghum conference which we spoke at in December.)

At the Vegetable & Flower conference, we learned about the challenges facing the vegetable and flower seed sector, from pathogen-based food safety concerns to supply chain sustainability to difficult regulatory questions around international trade. But the seed industry has long embraced innovation, and it’s already finding effective solutions, from new technology to plant breeding to collaboration, for these complex problems.

Here are some key takeaways from the conference, as well as our experiences with vegetable and flower seed:

The scope of the challenge

One of the most crucial and longstanding challenges that the vegetable and flower industry faces is safety, from seed to the end product in a grocery store. Almost any type of food can spread illness; the CDC estimates 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States. About one-third of these total illnesses are plant-based. Sometimes, these pathogens can travel on plant seeds, although produce does face risks of contamination at every point along the supply chain.

In particular, mycotoxins, salmonella, pathogenic E. coli, listeria, heavy metals, nitrates, and allergens are all plant pathogens that can make vegetables unsafe for consumption. These events are low-probability, but they do have high consequences for both consumers and industry.

For example, both 2018 and 2019 saw U.S. outbreaks of E. coli in leafy greens, specifically romaine lettuce. Although romaine had previously been the most popular lettuce in the U.S., sales dropped by $98 million after the outbreaks — from their $563 million peak in 2017 to $465 million.

Combined, innovation in plant breeding and improved sanitation can help deal with these issues. (See below for more.)

Other emerging diseases that threaten the vegetable and flower sector include tobamoviruses (often-resistant seedborne viruses affecting tobacco, potato, tomato, and squash, that leave lesions on leaves); pospiviroids (seedborne growth-reducing viruses on potatoes, tomatoes, citrus, avocado and some ornamentals); begomoviruses (whitefly-transmitted, leaf- and stem-limiting viruses on tomatoes, beans, squash, cassava, and cotton), and torradoviruses (recently discovered virus on tomatoes that causes severe necrosis of leaves and fruits). For example, both regulators and the industry are concerned about the tomato brown rugose fruit virus (ToBRFV), a newly identified virus, that cause mild to severe brown and wrinkled (rugose) patches on tomato, pepper, and possibly their relatives.

Tomato-infecting viruses like ToBRF are of major concern to the industry. The tomato seeds market is set to grow in the next decade, and emerging pathogens that cause crops to fail could hinder that. Companies like Syngenta have begun to develop varieties that it says are resistant to ToBRFV.

Nations have introduced phytosanitary guidelines to prevent the spread of ToBRFV, but these piecemeal guidelines vary widely by region. In an inextricably globalized food system, however, the differences in these regulations pose a challenge for the global seed industry that wants to fight these emerging diseases but face conflicting rules and confusing new proposals. While seed testing requirements are common for most crops, trade rules are specifically strict for vegetables and flowers to prevent invasive pests and infectious pathogens. In order to combat emerging threats like this, a system-wide approach is required.

In addition, the thread of climate change continues to run throughout these issues. Climate change threatens the ability to grow certain types of plants due to its multiple impacts and varying factors: it exacerbates extreme weather and soil degradation, creating difficult conditions for growers to continue to produce sensitive crops like vegetables and flowers. (Vegetable and flower crops are often sensitive to increased heat, flooding, low water availability, and salinity, all of which are potential impacts of climate change on cropland.) Climate change also influences the occurrence, prevalence, and severity of plant diseases. For example, because global temperatures are rising meaning that summer seasons are growing longer, plant diseases that fare better in heat have more time to multiply. Pathogens that had previously thrived in tropical climates, as well, are able to spread northwards as the climate warms in many places that were previously too cold.

How the vegetable and flower seed sector is responding

Given the scale of the challenge, vegetable and flower seed companies from around the world are working together to solve these challenges. In their toolbox? Innovation, technology, and collaboration.

Innovation in plant breeding

The seed industry is an innovative industry, leveraging new techniques in plant breeding and biotechnology to create more resilient and safe plants.

Plant breeding addresses food safety in vegetables by creating seeds that can withstand certain pathogens. For example, vegetables like spinach and broccoli take up nutrients from the soil as they grow, but if the soil also contains heavy metals like cadmium, they’ll soak up those, too. But the amount that plant tissues can uptake cadmium differs by variety — so identifying which gene controls for this and breeding plants that will uptake fewer heavy metals can create safer vegetables.

“Breeding is a tool we need to learn to use at the right time,” said Allen Van Deynze, the Director of Research at the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis.

One growing focus for plant breeders will be varieties of seeds that can withstand extreme weather events within one season. Climate change creates extreme variability of localized weather conditions — basically, even in one growing region, there is more likely to be both deep freezes and high-precipitation storms and heat waves back-to-back. Crops that can withstand these conditions will produce greater yield. This is not something that plant breeders have traditionally had to account for, so the plant breeders that can figure this out quickly will come out ahead of the rest of the industry.

Another focus is meeting evolving consumer expectations. The public increasingly expects vegetables to be available year-round, meaning that changes to how we grow produce become necessary. It’s a given that certain vegetables and flowers have one optimal season in a region with ideal growing conditions and weather for that plant. So when consumers want the produce at a different time, growers must figure out other ways to grow them, be it inside greenhouse conditions during the off-season or in new regions of the world.

Plant breeding can create crops that have longer growing seasons, or can withstand different climate conditions to be grown in different parts of the world in nontraditional months.

In terms of specific technology, one innovation, in particular, is transformation genome editing — plant breeders can add DNA into plants that isn’t foreign to the species. This helps alleviate concerns around GMOs, which are a controversial subject and also face varying regulations across different countries.

The vegetable and flower seed market is large and includes big corporate players as well as many small-scale, local farmers. Notable players that you should know include:

Rijk Zwaan, the Dutch vegetable seed company, has been working to tackle exactly this problem. The company is in over 30 different countries, with a vegetable seed market share of 9%. The company has invested €130 million (~USD$158 million) in research & development — 27.5% of the annual revenue — to work on new vegetable varieties, according to Hortidaily. The goal? Develop vegetables that will work in every climate zone with specific traits geared for different growing methods and consumer preferences.

Some notable examples of Rijk Zwaan’s innovative seed breeding include its new cucumber varieties that are resistant to fusarium, an insect fungus that can be toxic to humans if ingested, and the first hairless eggplant variety that is more resilient against pest damage. In addition, the company developed a larger organic range and some vegetables that would work best in fresh meal kits, as a way to respond to emerging consumer trends.

Takii, a Japanese vegetable and flower seed company with U.S., E.U., Latin American, and Chinese divisions, is also leading on plant breeding innovation, though it approaches it without genetic engineering. It has sold its signature line of plant seeds that produce crops with more nutrients, called Phytorich, for 25 years in Japan, and just launched in Europe last year.

Bejo Zaden, the Holland-based vegetable seed company, is also working on breeding and developing vegetable varieties to suit local climate conditions. The company has sales activities in 46 countries and sells over 1,200 varieties in 50 crops. One way that the company is spurring adoption of these new seeds is by working directly with smallholder farmers around the world, from West Africa to Asia to Central America: for example, Bejo has improved seed and product distribution, and key, helpful agronomic practices.

Enza Zaden, a Netherlands-based vegetable breeding company, which has developed over 1,200 vegetable varieties of more than 30 international and local crops to sell in more than 25 countries around the world. The company recently released a new white asparagus hybrid, a result of years of traditional plant breeding, which has a high stem weight and can be harvested early in the growing season, providing direct financial yields for growers and a hearty year-round product for consumers.

Information technology for vegetable and flower growers

While technological innovation is taking place inside the seed industry, it’s also taking place in conjunction with it. New ag-tech software partners can also help growers manage these issues on the ground.

One breakthrough technology with massive promise is blockchain. Blockchain is a shared, unchangeable digital ledger that facilitates the process of recording transactions and tracking assets across a network of computer systems. It’s basically a permanent online inventory log for business partners.

Blockchain’s value-proposition: it enables traceability across the entire food supply chain. That helps in the event of a food recall, plus reduces risk for farmers and puts consumers’ minds at ease with more available information.

Increasingly, food companies are implementing blockchain across their food supply chains. It records real-time data along the chain from seed provider to dealer to grower to elevator, including information on everything from which seeds were grown, how they’re grown, and where they’re grown.

One blockchain company, BlockApps, Inc is already working with Bayer CropScience, one of the major seed players. on a blockchain traceability solution for seed called the TraceHarvest Network. It tracks two key data types: seed info and how’s it grown. The blockchain also creates a profile of data sources to understand what’s accurate and what needs to be checked later on; it also produces an audit log that is human-readable with all of this information.

Similarly, ClimateAi’s agri-climate decision tools help seed companies optimize every decision around the weather — before, during, and after the growing season. As climate change causes shifts in the historic weather patterns that seasonal farming traditionally relies upon, yields and seed quality become increasingly unstable and unpredictable. Production is becoming more difficult every year, and similar to any other type of disruption, climate change will force the industry to adapt. Groups that don’t adapt will be forced out by competitors that can better handle the challenges and take advantage of the emerging opportunities. ClimateAi’s tools enable seed companies to turn climate disruption into a competitive advantage.

Collaboration for unified policies, in the US and internationally

Seed companies in ASTA stressed the need for an integrated systems approach to seed regulation, both domestically and internationally.

The regulatory environment surrounding seeds is complex: many countries have laws about gene-edited crops that are not updated to address the standards of modern plant breeding, while countries’ phytosanitary regulations, especially those regarding emerging diseases, are not aligned. Different countries have varying testing and sampling standards for imports and exports, for example, presenting logistics issues for seed companies.

Plus, the emerging organic seed market is governed under a fully separate set of rules. Organic trade is expanding, with the US and EU organic market estimated at over $100 billion. While many governments have established organic standards, some require certification to their own standard (like China and Brazil), while others require certification to their own standard or equivalent (like the US, Canada, EU, and Mexico). These discrepancies mean higher costs and more work to certify to multiple standards, creating barriers for organic farms and businesses to access export markets.

But representatives from ASTA stressed that the organization is working with policymakers and other organizations like the International Seed Federation (ISF) to push for universalization. It’s developing information-sharing documents and working on engagement with more international and domestic seed groups.

For gene-editing plant regulations, in particular, the goals are: a regulatory environment based on science, consistent policy across US regulatory agencies under the coordinated framework, consistent across countries, and an open-minded marketplace.

For phytosanitary concerns, ASTA also wants a unified approach across regions to help manage pests, diseases, and other pathogens in the seed industry. It is already discussing these goals with ISF’s Plant Breeding Innovation working group and coordinating with EuroSeed, Crop Life International, among others.

Ultimately, the vegetable and flower industry faces rough seas on the horizon — there is no one path towards the sustainable, profitable, nutritious, and safe food system that we continuously strive towards. However, the seed industry is undoubtedly one of the most powerful levers we as a planet have to shape the future of food, fuel, and fiber, and challenge is no novelty to the breeders and seed producers of the world.

Here at ClimateAi, we are honored to be working with some of the top seed companies in the world, helping them make weather-intelligent, crop variety-specific decisions anywhere from 1 day to 40 years into the future. If you are a food or agriculture business and you wish to learn more about what weather intelligence can do for your business + case studies on the ROI that our previous customers have realized, please feel free to reach out to us at media@climate.ai. We read all emails and will respond within 48 hours.

Accelerating climate resilience in food, water, and energy www.climate.ai

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