Seed industry focuses on consumer appeal

04/19/2010 04:01:03 PM
Ashley Bentley

The seed industry may be consolidating, with fewer players carrying broader product lines.

What’s happening within those product lines, though, is great diversification, largely based on the more recent movement toward developing products for their performance on the market, not just their performance in the fields.

“One of the big changes to our industry, if you just go back eight to 10 years, or if you go back centuries, product development has been focused almost completely on the growers,” said Dan Burdett, president of vegetable seeds for North America for Basel, Switzerland-based Syngenta.

“Those are still critical, but now we have to balance that with the presence of fruit traits that appeal to the consumer, like flavor, ship-ability, mouth feel,” Burdett said.

David Stark, vice president of consumer traits for St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., said taste is the biggest reason the agriculture industry struggles at getting more healthful food onto peoples’ plates.

“So it’s good for the seed industry, good for moms and dads, good for all consumers to focus on taste,” Stark said.

Atlee Burpee, eastern sales manager for Yokohama, Japan-based Sakata Seed Corp., said breeding objectives for newer varieties also will include an increased emphasis on nutritional benefits.

Burdett said seed companies can create value all the way through the chain by innovating at the plant science level.

“Does it look good, smell good, have good mouth feel, does it taste good? All those have to be understood at the scientific level,” Burdett said.

Syngenta’s main fresh fruit and vegetable products are sweet corn, watermelon, melon, peppers, squash, green beans and spinach.

Lara Grossman, former marketing and product development director for Tanimura & Antle, Salinas, Calif., said the same thing is happening at her new place of business, Netherlands-based Nunhems, Bayer CropScience’s vegetable seed business.

“That’s kind of the trend all seed companies are experiencing, working more with the end consumer,” Grossman said. “We look at market data, and have a lab where we look at what consumers will like.”

In order to better develop products with the consumer in mind, seed companies are asking for more help from companies at the other end of the chain, including retailers.

Monsanto started working directly with St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets Inc. on its latest onion innovation, the EverMild sweet onion. The seed is meant to be grown in the Pacific Northwest to produce onions for September to March, to complement the Vidalia and other sweet onion seasons.

Schnucks is test marketing the trademarked and branded vegetable variety, complete with in-store sampling and demonstrations.

“You have the consumer behavior information, you can do taste studies,” Burdett said. “We are scientists. If we can connect those two, we can have a big application.”

Grossman said a growing number of retailers are eager to work with seed companies, as are fresh-cut processors.

“An awful lot of it is talking with people in the industry, doing focus groups, remedying problems,” Stark said.

Seed companies also are trying to work further down the chain with the foodservice industry to meet its needs and develop products with traits that make them more attractive for foodservice use.

One of the consequences of targeted development is that crops will become more specific to their end users.

“We’ll see products that are going into specific packaging. This variety is for clamshells, this for something different,” Burdett said.

He predicts more packer-shippers will be going to growers asking for specific varieties to be grown for different purposes.

“But that’s the interesting thing because that’s what creates value,” Burdett said.

Growers — the middlemen

Seed companies are by no means ignoring growers using their products, though. Seed developers continue to work on plants with better disease resistance, yield and harvestability.

“By 2050, there will be another 2 billion people on the planet, and we have to feed and clothe those people,” Burdett said. “R&D that increases productivity is just a huge global challenge.”

Syngenta spends $1 billion per year on research and development, and it all goes back into the plants, Burdett said.

“The main focus is how we take technology and improve seeds so food that comes out tastes better and is grown easier,” Stark said.

Burpee said as labor rates increase, there will also be greater attention paid to developing varieties suitable for mechanical harvest.

The seed industry isn’t the only industry that’s consolidating, according to Art Abbott, president and chief executive officer of Abbott & Cobb, Feasterville, Pa.

The seed industry is catering to a smaller, more refined group of growers, he said.

“Just as the chain stores are merging or being acquired by even larger organizations, grower-shipper-broker collectives are becoming the norm,” Abbott said. “That, and the push toward consumer awareness and satisfaction, makes it more critical than ever to be able to supply product on a 12-month cycle.”

The challenge is to provide a group of varieties that meet the adverse conditions from one growing region to another while still meeting the grower’s need for yield, and at the same time meeting the consumer’s need for quality.



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