Valorisation panel accelerates research into potato innovation
How does a new approach to potato breeding contribute to world food security, sustainable ambitions, and the economic viability of the potato sector? That was the key question during the MVI project POTAREI. ‘Thanks, in part, to the efforts of the valorisation panel, we were able to describe the significance and consequences of introducing hybrid breeding in detail.’
The traditional approach to potato breeding is a painstaking process, says project leader Paul Struik, Professor of Crop Physiology at Wageningen University. ‘The potato is a tetraploid plant, which means that each chromosome comes in sets of four. If we want to introduce characteristics from a wild species through outcrossing, it takes a long time before we obtain a new, pure species.’
From four to two
The Dutch company Solynta developed a so-called diploid inbred lines of the potato in which only two copies of each chromosome remain. This makes hybrid breeding possible. ‘Hybrid breeding has several important consequences’, Struik emphasises. ‘First of all, the breeding process is far faster. This means, for example, that we can stay ahead of resistance being overcome by pathogens. Secondly, the cultivation is different: potato seeds instead of tubers. This delivers an entirely different propagation material to growers, which affects the entire potato chain.’
In many countries, the logistics for potatoes is difficult, states Struik. It is far easier and cheaper to bring seeds to remote areas than tubers. And for small farmers in developing countries, it is a real bonus if new breeds are less susceptible to diseases, as they often lack the resources to control those. At the same time, it also means a switch from tubers to seeds and a considerable change for the everyday practice of the entire potato chain.
The POTAREI project investigated different possible future scenarios for hybrid potato breeding and the agricultural and societal consequences associated with these. How will potato seeds be used in the cultivation, and what needs to be done differently than is the case for tubers? What does that mean for the contribution of hybrid potato breeding to food security, sustainability and the viability of the Dutch potato sector? Which lessons can we learn from this for the various parties involved in the sector and in government policy? The report (only available in Dutch) in which the Rathenau Instituut describes these three scenarios received widespread attention.
‘My main tip to fellow researchers is: make maximum use of the expertise of panel members. That definitely yields added value for your research.’
Important role for valorisation panel
The valorisation panel involved in this project played an important role, says Struik. ‘The members were without exception highly enthusiastic, competent and committed. There was also frequent contact between individual researchers and individual panel members outside of the meetings. The researchers visited several of the panel members to ask them how the sector works and what potato cultivation from seeds could look like. The panel members were also part of the group of stakeholders we interviewed to prepare for the future scenarios, and they actively took part in the scenario workshops that we organised.’
Researchers in the project experienced this commitment as highly positive, says Struik. ‘The panel gave us the feeling that the sector understood us and helped us to clearly distinguish the main points from the side issues. Furthermore, the panel members ensured that the researchers without an agricultural background were quickly brought up to speed about everyday practice in the potato sector. That gave rise to more depth in the project.’
Whereas the potato sector was initially sceptical about the introduction of hybrid breeding, the concept gained more ground during the course of the project. ‘As MVI researchers, we experienced this development first-hand. Through this project, Solynta has been kept aware of its societal responsibility and people are starting to think more explicitly about the tension that arises during responsible innovation. Furthermore, they have become even more aware of the need for the right external communication.’
Lessons about optimal collaboration
Looking back at the project, Struik sees several generic lessons about how researchers can optimally collaborate with a valorisation panel: ‘It is vital that you develop a feeling of mutual understanding as quickly as possible. It helps if you strongly involve the members in the research process and use them as a continuous source of knowledge. By directly incorporating their feedback into your research, you build mutual trust. My main tip to fellow researchers is: make maximum use of the expertise of panel members. That definitely yields added value for your research.’