Innovation, fierce competition define seed industry

03/24/2011 04:44:33 PM
Ashley Bentley

The seed industry seems to have a lot in common with consumer electronics. Almost as soon as a new variety hits the market, the next best thing is right behind it.

Seed breeders seem to be working harder and faster with marker-assisted breeding, more communication and feedback from marketers and retailers, and product cycles that are one-third the time of what they used to be.

Large volume crops are where the most innovation is happening for fresh fruits and vegetables, said Andy LaVigne, president and chief executive officer of the American Seed Trade Association, Alexandria, Va.

“Tomatoes, lettuce, beans, watermelon — that’s where you’re seeing new things coming out,” LaVigne said.

“Larger crops are going to be addressed first, then going down into the niche markets.”

LaVigne said the supermarket industry is in a unique place because consumers are looking for more varieties of staple items, such as lettuce and tomatoes, and are more willing to try different things.

“We’re seeing these relationships. Seed companies are talking to distributors, brokers or even specific supermarket chains and supplying product to the grower for that specific demand,” LaVigne said.

“But I wouldn’t say that’s the norm.”

For some seed companies, that means actually getting into the market business. For others, it just means more collaboration with all steps of the supply chain.

Joep van de Burgt, business development manager for Creve Coeur, Mo.-based Monsanto Co., said in the past seed companies were focused on the grower, but now have expanded their focus to packers, shippers, wholesalers and retailers.

“We are directly connected to retailers so we can direct our breeding focus to what their customers are looking for,” van de Burgt said.

“We are really focused on the whole chain.”

Lisa Zaglin, marketing director for Feasterville, Pa.-based Abbott & Cobb, said consumer demand for quality produce on a 12-month cycle has breeders under the gun to provide varieties that can be grown under diverse growing conditions in different regions.

“The trend toward closer connections with retailers and fresh-cut processors continues to grow,” Zaglin said.

“Demand for more consistent quality, improved food safety, better appearance and better eating is making the food chain connection much tighter.”

Tomatoes are a category with a tremendous amount of change and innovation, seed breeders agreed.

“We still get a lot of the grape tomatoes. That still seems to be popular — new varieties are coming out all the time,” said Wayne Gale, president and co-owner of Stokes Seeds Ltd., Thorold, Ontario, a seed distributor.


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