Winter breeding locations in South America accelerate varietal development in Europe.
When the growing season comes to its annual end, plant breeders pack their bags and head south for warmer climate zones. However, their bags are not necessarily packed with snorkeling gear and boogie boards. Rather, plant breeders pack their tweezers, camel hair brushes and little specimen bags. They are not packing for vacation — the purpose of their journey is to continue the propagation of new varieties of row crops, vegetables, ornamental plants and other species that would normally be shelved for six months while awaiting the spring thaw.
Many seed companies accelerate their breeding programs by using winter nurseries in South America, cutting the time it would take to bring a new variety to market in half. Winter nurseries used by northern hemisphere seed companies can be found in most Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. In addition to those, also Mexico, Guatemala, Hawaii and Puerto Rico host significant winter breeding activity.
“The primary advantage of a winter nursery is that it provides an opportunity to collect data from the current season (in October) and use that data to make new hybrid combinations in the winter to be returned in time for spring planting the following year — significantly reducing the time it takes to commercialize a new corn hybrid,” says Dwight Bostwick, head of Syngenta’s North American corn breeding projects.
The tropical and sub-tropical climate allows most of the countries to attempt double-cropping on a large scale or have even more than two crops per year under an irrigation system. Many of these countries have significantly improved their productivity over the last few years but still have plenty of room for improvement.
Of course, the main advantage of a winter nursery is that it provides an opportunity to collect data from the current season (in October) and use that data to make new hybrid combinations in the winter to be returned in time for spring planting in Europe the following year — significantly reducing the time it takes to commercialise a new corn hybrid.
To breed a new hybrid or varietal crop, multiple generations of self-pollination or ‘selfing’ and selection are required to reach the required level of uniformity. The number of generations can be as high as nine or even up to 12 from the time a new breeding cross is made until the newly created product is commercialized. A fast cycle time enabled by South America’s winter breeding nurseries and seed production operations is one of the greatest benefits.
If breeding companies only were to take advantage of the European growing season, the cycle time could be as long as nine to 12 years for a new variety. So the decrease in cycle time increases the rate of genetic gain and the rate in which companies can commercialize new products.
But shrinking the development timeline isn’t the only reason seed companies look to South America. Companies also use numerous counter-season sites to spread their risk and ensure top-quality test seed.
Choosing a Site
Most business owners, or any friendly realtor, will say that location is everything. The same can be said for winter nurseries. Locations share some characteristics that make them ideal for winter production. But experts agree that an ideal winter production site is difficult, if not impossible to find.
Tom Koch, AgReliant Genetics vice president of research, says “Each site offers its own unique set of advantages and challenges.” The company’s main South American sites are located in Argentina and Chile.
AgReliant Genetics engages in the research, production, and supply of seeds for farmers in North America. It markets corn, soybean, and alfalfa seeds through its brands. It is a joint venture of Groupe Limagrain Holding SA and KWS Saat SE.
So what factors come into play when choosing a site?
Most business owners, or any friendly realtor, will say that location is everything. The same can be said for winter nurseries. Locations share some characteristics that make them ideal for winter production.
Koch says an ideal winter production site is difficult, if not impossible to find.
“We look for a site that can offer the most advantages with the least amount of risk,” he says. “The site must be able to efficiently provide seed when it is needed in North America. Tropical locations tend to offer the highest level of flexibility of planting dates, often allowing year-round production.
“Unfortunately, these sites tend to have year-round disease and pest pressure, as well, creating the need for effective management strategies. Our genetics are well adapted to the growing conditions of North America, which can be different from sites in South America. Climate, soil conditions and pest pressure can all vary. Additionally, anytime seed is being grown in another country, local laws and regulations must be followed. This can include import/export requirements or differing biotechnology regulations.”
Seed companies often have several and sometimes up to more than 100 breeding centers in many countries around the world, and that makes it necessary to consider a whole range of environmental and social factors. Most seedsmen would say that there are four primary characteristics that make a winter nursery location ideal: the climate, infrastructure, regulatory environment and a skilled workforce.
Jose Luis Hernandez, who serves as research director for DuPont Pioneer, says the company has more than 100 breeding centers in 25 countries around the world. “There are a variety of environmental and social factors we consider,” he says.
“Companies look for favourable environments for seed production, in particular climates with high temperatures, high levels of solar radiation and low humidity. This allows them to maximize seed production, as well as study the impact of heat stress and production under limited irrigation regimes, selecting for the best products to meet the global demand for seed,” says Hernandez.
Companies look for locations that are not too hot and where water can be managed, either with irrigation or in a location that does not have excessive rainfall during the critical portion of the year. Some locations have higher humidity, and this can increase the amount of certain fungal species not only on the leaves but also on the seed, and this makes a timely harvest essential.
What’s best for one crop might not be best for another. Environmental conditions such as soil type, water, temperature, day length and solar radiation should match what’s best for production of the desired crop. Additionally, it’s important to recognize that some germplasm does not work in some winter nursery locations.
Michael Martin, Monsanto’s multi-season program lead, says early germplasm like you would find in North Europe does not do well in places such as Puerto Rico, while later germplasm that you would find in southern Europe does not do as well in other regions in South America. A breeder has to do a good job of matching what germplasm goes to which winter nursery location. The later the material is planted in a winter nursery, the more the quality and quantity of seed generally goes down. So good planning and timely planting is absolutely crucial.
Infrastructure and Regulatory Environment
Another characteristic that must be considered is a country’s infrastructure.
Hernandez says DuPont Pioneer takes into consideration the ability to move seed into and out of a country. “Moving seed from one country to another can be challenging, so we look for countries with established and reliable agriculture infrastructure and shipping channels,” he says.
Essentially, this comes down to speed — how quickly the crop can be produced, from planting to harvest, and shipped.
Coupled with a country’s infrastructure is its regulatory environment.
“It’s critical to work in countries with a favourable regulatory and business climate, including stable governments and regulations that promote research investment by protecting intellectual property,” Hernandez says.
Martin agrees. “Stability in the political and economic conditions in the country being considered for winter production is important due to the various phytosanitary and regulatory policies associated with moving seed around the world,” he says.
One should also note whether a location accepts GM technology for research and planting. “Places such as Hawaii have become more challenging due to local or additional regulations around GM traits and other farm management/agronomic practices,” Bostwick says. “Some locations do not permit GM traits, so we must ensure the material we ship into the country does not contain GM traits.”
A Skilled Workforce
Even with a sound infrastructure and dependable, transparent government, a wintery nursery cannot enjoy success without the right people. Companies also consider the ability to attract and retain the necessary workforce.
Hernandez says DuPont Pioneer employs a variety of workers, from doctoral scientists to skilled lab technicians to full time and seasonal field workers. “We work with local authorities to ensure we are complying with local labor regulations and also providing a safe work environment,” he says.
He notes that each location brings unique agronomic, phytosanitary, regulatory as well as labour availability considerations. “All of them can be properly managed by assessing risk the right way in each situation,” he says.
It’s important to be able to find good quality and skilled local labour at a reasonable cost, and this can be challenging in some locations. Also government or labor disruptions should not be overlooked. In some countries such as Chile and Argentina, it is not uncommon to have a short labour strike when moving seed in or out of the country.
Martin cites Chile as a country that offers specific advantages for winter nursery operation. “Chile has been a reliable country for Monsanto as well as for other seed companies’ winter seed production for a long time for corn, soybeans, canola, vegetables and other crops,” Martin says.
“Chile has the advantage of ideal growing conditions for most row crops including winter breeding nurseries as well as commercial seed production. Chile has stable and known phytosanitary and regulatory policies in place for biotechnology traits. Its political and economic policies have been relatively stable as well.”
Martin notes that a long growing season is the one disadvantage for Chile.
“There is only one crop production cycle per year and production of long-season varieties can be a challenge to return to North America in time for spring planting,” he says, explaining that it’s desirable to get multiple cycles of product advancements before returning it for field testing in North America. “In Brazil, you can conduct multiple cycles of production per year; however, phytosanitary restrictions on seed movement between countries limit the potential for winter breeding nurseries or seed production for North American-based operations.”
Monsanto and other companies have used Argentina for both commercial winter seed production as well as for winter breeding nursery operations. “The country has vast agricultural lands suited to soybean, corn, sunflower, sorghum and other crop production,” Martin says. “The growing season is longer-season and, at times, it may be difficult to turn production cycles in time to benefit operations in North America.”
Having flexibility with seed production has led to improvements in yield and product performance, noting that reduced cycle time and increased amount of testing directly contribute to genetic gain. But perhaps as important are the experiences and relationships that are formed with colleagues abroad.
“In every single location we strive to be, act and behave as good neighbours,” Hernandez says. “We try to connect to our communities and engage with our neighbours.
“For instance, we have an effort to preserve the Arica hummingbird, the smallest bird in Chile. Employees invest time and work on restoring its habitat, and provide water along its flying routes. We also engage with the community through initiatives such as recycling, community gardens, involvement on community sports, high school and college agriculture and biotechnology summer camps, and safety and health days with employees and their families.”
Conducting plant breeding, seed propagation and other types of crop field research beyond the borders of one’s native land can provide a host of opportunities.
“Because of the time necessary to work with the products, our staff often immerses themselves in the local culture and community,” Koch says. “Repeatedly, our employees refer to many in South America as friends, be it coworkers, contract employees or even local business people.”
Learning about another culture, or about the intricacies of another country’s rules governing agricultural research, provide seed company personnel with unique experiences.
“We have had employees in multiple earthquakes in Chile and there is often talk regarding the possibility of uncovering centuries old mummies near growing locations,” Koch says. “The unique environment, both in terms of growing conditions and local culture, make South American seed research and production an exciting challenge and rewarding opportunity.”