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.
“They’re sweeter and have thinner skin so they’re not so chewy.”
Gale said snacking vegetables, including baby carrots and miniature cucumbers, are also a category of focus for seed breeder-producers. Carrots produced to become baby carrots are sweeter varieties than those produced for the cello carrot market, he said.
New varieties of lettuce have emerged as consumers demanded more lettuce options and a different way to buy their leafy green vegetables, said Kelly Keithly, owner and president of Keithly-Williams Seed, Holtville, Calif.
“There’s been a reduction in the amount of head lettuce used in favor of the leaf lettuces,” Keithly said.
“A lot of that has gone to baby leaf. And consumers are buying more of their items in plastic boxes.”
Agronomic traits remain a primary focus of all seed breeding efforts. Van de Burgt said because of the rapid development of new plant diseases, breeders need to develop disease-resistant varieties just as quickly.
New varieties that allow the grower more control over size and uniformity, and even those that show more clearly when they’re ready to be picked, all lead to improvement in the item on the shelf.
Ana Maria Cota, sales representative for West Mexico and Arizona for San Diego-based Ahern International Seeds Inc., said there have been increased efforts in breeding of peppers and tomatoes for disease resistance.
“I think the consumer is demanding more taste, but breeding programs are still very focused on yield,” Cota said.
“In my area, everything has been pretty constant outside of protected culture due to growing insect problems.”