I feel very fortunate of having taken part on the European Plant Breeding College, because besides of learning many new things and meeting many interesting people I have had the chance to travel along and getting to know about the culture of the hosting city and country. This time I stayed in Ghent and traveled all round to visit other places no more that 1 hour by train. Those are the perks of being a tiny country, Belgium 😉
Belgium seems like the place where northern Europe meets southern Europe. Where snow meets rain, where Germanic meets the Latin, where beer meets wine, where tidiness meets street-art, responsibility meets spontaneity, and affordable meets expensive. No wonder why Brussels is where the European Parliament is located. I was honestly surprised by the strong cultural and gastronomic identity this place has. Besides this the country has beautiful and photogenic architecture and lively cities with cozy bars and independent stores.
Ghent is of course my favorite. I loved to stay during two weeks Hostel Uplink, where the organizers of the course decided to locate us. The hostel has nice atmosphere and is located in the heart of the city. However, Antwerp also stole my heart. It is beautiful and authentic. I also visited Bruges, which is so photogenic and charming, Brussels with a good combination between chaos and organization and Leuven is fun town which holds one of the oldest universities in the world.
As part of the ISP in Ghent I had the chance to visit different breeding companies in Belgium and The Netherlands. It was a great opportunity to realize about the breeding sector, which is by far one of the biggest in agriculture. Before coming to Ghent, I did not know that these region was well known for hosting some of the biggest breeding companies and seed producers in Europe and the world. Most of these companies started as family companies that have been breeding new plants for generations and managed through generations by the family line.
However, competition is tough and not all companies have survived to Bayer and Monsanto – companies that are by far the biggest in the market and will be soon merged. To coup with this, the companies we visited have had to either focus on very specific niche such as ornamental plants (mostly flowers) or merge with other small companies to be relevant in such a competed field.
We visited Gediflora, a Belgian company that breeds chrysanthemum and is even commercializing chrysanthemum scented Belgian beer; Exotic Plants, a family company which has become the world leader for breeding Bromeliaceas; Bejo a Dutch company that breeds different kinds of vegetables and are world leaders in onion breeding; Royal van Zanten that have specialized in Alstromelia and Redunculus and who happen to have a large extension of their production in Bogotá (!) and Anthura, who are leaders in Anthurium and Phalaenopsis orchids.
On my last post I wrote about the Intensive Study Program In Ghent University. I came all the way from Sweden to learn more about hybrid breeding. But, why is hybrid breeding important?
The whole concept is based on what is known as hybrid vigor. It happens when two parents cross and their progeny is more vigorous than themselves. For breeding new varieties is extremely helpful due to a few reasons: it is easy to register a new variety created this way, characteristics are easy to stack, it is reproducible, but most importantly it obligates the farmers to buy new seeds every time they want to plant them. That is basically why seed companies have succeeded on making money out of plant breeding.
To make and hybrid it is necessary to create Inbred lines, which are plants mostly homozygous. After two parents are crossed (F0) the resulting seeds (F1)will be completely homogeneous, heterozygote and hopefully vigorous. These seeds are those that the breeder will sell to the farmer. Why does the farmer have to buy seeds every year? the seeds of the F1 generation (F2 seeds) will be completely different to each other!
As part of the European Plant Breeding College (read EPBC: European Plant Breeding College), I got the opportunity to join another intensive course similar to the one at LaSalle Beauvis in France ( read ISP in France: an overview). This course is about Hybrid Breeding and takes place in Ghent University in Belgium, which by the way is such a beautiful city!
I arrived earlier this week and have had different lectures covering topics such as chromosome engineering, polyploidy, reverse breeding and hybridization. To be honest I did not know that there were such advanced techniques to create new plant varieties. Like, I thought most of the technologies in plant breeding were just marker assisted selection or transformation techniques, but is interesting to know how many different biological alternatives there are to create new varieties.
As in France, students from different universities are attending the course. We are all staying at Upplink Hostel, which has a very good location a very cozy atmosphere. This makes the stay here very nice, because there are many different landmarks at walking distance and interesting people coming every day to the hostel. I have liked it very much so far.
The course lasts for two weeks and there are going to be many exiting thing coming along the next few days! I will definitely write about it here 🙂
Yesterday was the defence of the pilot cases from the European Plant Breeding College EPBC (Read EPBC: European Plant Breeding College). The aim of the pilot case was to design an hypothetical breeding program together with students with different backgrounds from different universities. It started during the Intensive Study Program in France in october (Read The Intensive Study Program at LaSalle-Beauvais and ISP in France: an overview), where 5 different groups were created and topics were chosen. My group was composed by Sibel from Ege University, Bilal from LaSalle-Beaviais, Jorge form Polytechinc University of Valencia, Nicolas from La-Salle Beavis and myself. We decided to create a pilot breeding project for high value peanuts for the EU seed market.
The motivation for the topic was clear:There is a high demand for peanuts from European food companies, an increasing concern about allergies, and opportunities for farmers who are encouraged to grow leguminous plants within EU. Plus, most of peanuts for human consumption in Europe are imported. We thought that there was a need and an opportunity for a high quality variety of peanut adapted to Mediterranean Europe that could meet the requirements of the stakeholders in the market: farmers, food companies and consumers.
The process was not easy, because it was challenging to meet and make decisions after our stay in France. We established communication tools and I assumed the role of Project Manager (hehe), so my role was to organize and try to create a good group dynamic to meet the goals of the project. I think it was amazing how in my group we could complement the skills of each other and in the end we found a synergy between each member strengths, which I believe reflected the focus of the master program each student is following at the moment.
The defence went very good and I am sure that the learning outcome of the project was met. Great job peanut-team!
So, the intensive course in France is finished (more here), and now I am back to Uppsala. I have to say that it was a good course, because I learnt many new things. Now, I am more knowledgeable about plant breeding, intelectual property in plants, project management and agriculture in Europe. Actually, it was interesting to see the French countryside and realize how much of a leading country in agriculture France is.
As part of the course I got to visit GEVES (read more here), started a pilot breeding project together with students from other universities and met plant breeders who helped us to formulate the breeding project idea and told us what exactly a breeding company is looking for in a future plant breeder.
In all, the lectures were very good and I personally believe that project management in plant breeding is crucial to complement my background education and research interest (molecular plant pathology). However the experience was outshone because of the poor organization of the course by the host university, which I hope will work on it for a next time.
The Intensive Study Program (ISP) (Read more here) is part of the European Plant Breeding College (EPBC), an initiative of five European universities: LaSalle-Beauvais Institute (France), Universidad Politécnica de Valencia (Spain), Ghent University (Belgium), Ege University (Turkey) and of course, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Sweden).
The EPBC is EU-funded, has been going on for almost a year and aims to create a hub for plant breeding in Europe, specially among European universities. To achieve this, mobility strategies such as the Intensive Study Program in project management applied to plant breeding – which I followed in France, were created.
It has been a nice opportunity to be part of it indeed, because I have met very interesting master students from the universities mentioned above, and stakeholders in the plant breeding sector in France. Particularly, I had many nice conversations about agriculture and culture with students coming from Liberia, Kenya, Ghana and Malawi in Africa. Throughout my education I have not learnt many things about Africa, but now I agree with Catherine, a Kenyan student who told me that “Africa is the new frontier” .
The EPBC has other activities planed, and I hope I can take part on some of them, including a course in hybrid breeding in Ghent. Actually, in the website there are interesting webinars and more information about it.
As part of the Intensive Study Program (ISP) at LaSalle-Beauvais, I had the chance to visit GEVES – the Variety Seed Study and Control Group in Angers, a city in western France. GEVES conducts studies for registration, legal protection, and certification of seeds. So basically, they make sure that seeds to be sold are good. To make that happen, they have a scientific station in which they provide services for seed companies interested in registering new plant varieties.
For breeding companies and seed producers registration and protection is a key aspect, because on that will depend the economical return for their companies. And of course it is important for the growers and the agricultural industry in general, because registered seeds are trustworthy and safe to maintain production standards.
GEVES also has a field in which they test DUS (Distinctness, Uniformity and Stability) in new varieties. They essentially grow in plots the varieties that breeders want to introduce to prove that in effect, they are new to the market and suitable for growers. Actually, I got to see gigantic beetroots used for animal feed. Quite impressive, hehe.