Rethinking What Makes Germplasm ‘Elite’

pathways_precisionOne seed company insists that it has the “best-of-the-best” germplasm. Another boasts “the largest collection” of “elite” germplasm. Yet another claims it has “the best in the world.” All similar claims that leave a customer confused. If every seed company says it has the best germplasm, they cannot all be right.

So how do we know which one is best? The very phrasing of the question reflects a flaw in the way germplasm is typically discussed. Germplasm is the basic genetic material that captures a plant’s traits. It includes flowering timing, yield-maturation times, pest resistance, disease resistance, drought tolerance, hardness factors, and other important information. Germplasm describes the genetic pool that companies use to deliver high-performing products to farmers.

As such, germplasm is the foundation for growing crops. Getting germplasm right sets the stage for a successful harvest. So naturally a farmer is going to want to know which seed is the best performer.

Imagine asking a horse breeder a similar question: “What is the best breed of horse?” The answer will be, “It depends.” The best horse, or the horse with the best performance, varies based on its intended purpose. Throughout history, the typical reasons for owning a horse have changed. A war horse would favor characteristics like high endurance, agility or extraordinary carrying capacity. Heavy horses able to carry great loads might have been pressed into farm service as draught horses. Some thoroughbreds are swift enough to run in the Kentucky Derby. Other horses have always been prized most of all for their appearance.

No single horse can be “best” against all uses and categories. Just as the best horse (or breed) depends on the end user’s intentions, so it is with germplasm.

The idea that there is a best germplasm is a myth, because farm conditions are always variable. In California, drought has recently been one of the most persistent problems growers have faced. In Florida, citrus groves have been devastated by greening. So while drought resistance is key in the Golden State, disease resistance is more important in the Sunshine State. Anywhere in the country or around the globe, the exact mix of disease resistance, drought resistance, maturation times and other vital characteristics will vary with the climate, the soil and other interrelated factors. Even in the same location, what is important may change from one harvest to the next.

Placement, placement, placement

No one farm or growing operation is identical to another, so it follows that there is no one best seed. The most important thing, then, is not laying claim to having the “best” seed, but knowing how to place the seed that is the best local fit.

Most farmers intuitively understand this fact. “How will this product perform in my field?” is of far more importance than knowing how a seed will perform on a generic farm under ideal conditions. Knowing how a pYoung Corn Fieldroduct is going to perform on a particular plot of land under this season’s—not last season’s—weather conditions is the sort of knowledge that will unlock the highest possible yields.

The highest possible yields will not be achieved through speculation, assumptions and guesses about performance. It takes hard facts and science to know which product will perform well under a given set of circumstances. It is here that the old-fashioned trusted seed advisor drops the ball for modern farmers who want to base their decisions on more than hunches.

Just as it is difficult to trust a car salesman who does not know your specific needs, it is difficult to believe an advisor who does not come armed with facts that support the best choice for an individual farm. The days where sales were based on a historical view, of what worked in the past, are over. Today, sales requires having a data-driven view of what will work, and the value of the advice will come from having tailored insight and data.

Tailored advice is made possible by data-driven analysis. Data and assumptions can predict likely results of using various seeds on a given farmer’s land and show which one is likely to perform best  for that farmer. Returning to our original question, this is what “the best” looks like— data-backed selection that fits a local purpose and conditions. This is why having the best placement is key.

Just as there is no one best seed, having the biggest germplasm pool does not guarantee superior results. Diversity is an important concept, but diversity on its own is simply not enough. There is no benefit, for example, to developing resistance to a disease that farmers are not experiencing. Time spent on traits that are not needed is valuable time that could have been better spent developing more useful traits.

Managing germplasm should be about achieving diversity that produces results. That means having an analytical framework in the breeding program that is focused on quality over quantity. The best results will come from the organization that has the right sets of germplasm to suit the broad range of conditions its customers are experiencing. Properly managed diversity enables proper germplasm placement, and that, in turn, yields the best results. All the parts must work together as a system to achieve success.

Often in precision agriculture the top concern is optimizing software and sensors to produce optimal results. Those factors are important, to be sure, and they can bring tremendous boosts in productivity. But getting the tools right does not mean that the results will end up being the best that they can be. For example, precisely administering inputs will not help a drought intolerant seed achieve maximum yield under drought conditions.

Only proper germplasm placement provides the potential for truly optimal results. Germplasm provides the solid foundation needed to maximize the benefit from all the tools that are applied on the farm. The right germplasm as identified by analytical tools ensures that the entire system is optimized, not just one part of it. That, in turn, is what gives farmers “elite” or “best of the best” results at harvest time.

Joseph Byrum is Senior R&D and Strategic Marketing Executive in Life Sciences – Global Product Development, Innovation and Delivery at Syngenta.

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