Potatoes are among the world’s most widely cultivated food crops. They are also highly susceptible to diseases, and in poorer countries often only provide a low yield per hectare. Moreover, potato cultivation has a high environmental impact due to the use of chemical crop protection products. A great deal is therefore to be gained by ensuring ecologically sustainable potato cultivation that contributes to global food security.
The Netherlands is a major producer of seed potatoes. Hybrid potato breeding offers the Dutch potato sector new opportunities to help find a solution to these challenges (see box below). A number of Dutch companies are presently working on this technology.
What is hybrid potato breeding and what are its advantages?
Hybrid breeding means crossing “pure” inbreeding lines, thus guaranteeing that the resulting variety has specific characteristics.
The advantages are:
Potato varieties can be adapted more quickly to for example changing climatic conditions or to pathogens.
Newly developed varieties can become available in the form of true potato seed instead of seed potatoes (tubers).
- True potato seed is less susceptible to disease, meaning less use of chemical crop protection products during cultivation;
- True potato seed is easier to transport.
Hybrid potato breeding can therefore contribute to sustainability and food security. No use is made of genetic modification in hybrid potato breeding.
Not everyone is convinced that the promises of hybrid potato breeding can actually be fulfilled and it is also questionable what the economic and social consequences will be in the event of successful introduction. For example, the transition from the use of seed potatoes to true potato seed requires the potato production chain to be organised differently, which may have a negative impact on the economically successful Dutch seed potato sector. There are also varying perspectives on the direction in which agriculture and food production should develop.
Three scenarios for the future
The future of hybrid potato breeding is therefore uncertain. In order to imagine and be able discuss that future, the Rathenau Instituut has drawn up three scenarios. These have been utilised to identify the economic, social, and policy conditions that need to be met if hybrid potato breeding is to contribute to more sustainable cultivation and global food security. Consideration has also been given to what constitutes a promising business model for the Dutch potato sector. The three scenarios were discussed with experts, policymakers, and interested parties both inside and outside the sector during two workshops and a number of supplementary discussions.
The three scenarios are assumed to play out in the year 2040. They are based on different narratives, each constructed using four building blocks:
- Control: Who holds power within the potato sector?
- Demand: What are the main market and consumer trends?
- Technology: What are the main technological trends?
- Focus: Is the focus on intensive or extensive agriculture?
The scenarios show that societal forces influence the way in which a technological innovation such as hybrid potato breeding takes shape. Conversely, the technology concerned also affects relations within the sector. Understanding the interaction between the two offers pointers for guiding this innovation in the right direction.
Each scenario assumes the successful introduction of hybrid potato breeding and is based on a trend that is already apparent:
- The “Global Duopoly in 2040” scenario is in line with the current trend in agriculture towards increasing scale and intensification;
- The “Circular and High-Tech in 2040” scenario is inspired by the vision of sustainable intensification;
- The “Diversified Markets in 2040” scenario is based on the idea of participatory breeding, in which farmers are involved in the development of new varieties.
The three scenarios are briefly described on the basis of the four building blocks.
Scenario 1: Global Duopoly in 2040
In 2040, two multinationals dominate the potato sector. The world population has increased dramatically and potato products are extremely popular in many countries. This scenario makes use of the following four variable building blocks:
- Control: Two large multinationals control and dominate the potato sector worldwide. They determine which potatoes are eaten.
- Demand: Demand for potatoes has increased sharply worldwide, but the importance of the European consumer market has declined.
- Technology: The multinationals make pragmatic choices regarding the use of potato seed or seed potatoes, genetic modification or hybrid breeding, and crop protection products.
- Focus: Large-scale potato production, in which yield per hectare is the leading factor, contributes to world food security, but at the expense of the environment.
Scenario 2: Circular & High-Tech in 2040
In 2040, the Netherlands has been hit hard by global warming. A large proportion of Dutch agricultural land has had to make way for nature. This scenario makes use of the following four variable building blocks:
- Control: The Dutch government imposes strict ecological sustainability conditions on companies in order to make the economy circular. The traditional Dutch seed potato sector has disappeared.
- Demand: Dutch consumers pay more for tasty, healthy, and varied food. Dutch potato growers focus mainly on local markets.
- Technology: Dutch agriculture relies heavily on technological innovation in order to deal with problems caused by climate change. Poorer countries cannot keep up with these technological developments.
- Focus: More space for nature in the Netherlands means that potato growers need to produce as much as possible on the limited area of agricultural land that is available.
Scenario 3: Diversified Markets in 2040
In 2040, patents on the natural properties of plants have been abolished worldwide. Public organisations ensure the accessibility of suitable potato parent lines.
This scenario makes use of the following four variable building blocks:
- Control: Breeders worldwide utilise hybrid breeding to develop regionally adapted varieties. The Dutch seed potato sector produces only for the local market. The Netherlands trades worldwide in know-how about breeding and integrated potato production chains.
- Demand: Consumers’ interest in local food has increased. The processing industry demands uniform varieties.
- Technology: Innovation in the potato sector focuses mainly on the natural breeding of varieties.
- Focus: A large part of global production small scale and diversified, utilising local infrastructures. Potatoes for the processing industry are produced in bulk by larger farming companies.
Three lessons from the scenarios
The scenario workshops and discussions, and our analysis of them, yield the following three scenario-transcending lessons. They offer guidance for hybrid potato breeding to contribute to an ecologically sustainable and secure food supply, while maintaining a promising business model for the Dutch potato sector.
Lesson 1: Legislation and regulations for the development of new varieties
It is important to maintain an innovative market for breeders so that new potato varieties that contribute to food security in a sustainable manner continue to be developed. Governments must guarantee, through national and international legislation and regulations, that:
- breeders retain access to genetic material and new knowledge;
- breeders can make use of a variety of breeding techniques; and
- new potato varieties on the market are subject to protection, so that it is worthwhile for breeders to invest in them.
Governments can ensure this by:
- establishing and maintaining gene banks;
- continuing to fund public knowledge institutions so that a common knowledge base is maintained; and
- retain provisions such as plant breeders’ rights that allows breeders to protect and monetize on new varieties.
Lesson 2: Ensure diversity of genes, varieties, and also cultivation systems
The different ways in which hybrid breeding is used in the various scenarios show that breeding technology alone does not offer a solution to issues of sustainability and food security.
The technology offers opportunities both for the unlocking of a broad genetic diversity and for developing varieties that are identical apart from the type of built- in resistance genes. The technology can thus be utilised in various breeding strategies and cultivation systems. It is important to promote a diversified approach. In order to ensure the societal embedding of the technology, careful consideration must be given to the combination of variety, cultivation system, and production chain. In the view of the parties involved, the government is the appropriate party to set conditions so that hybrid potato breeding actually helps to tackle societal challenges.
It is therefore up to the government to encourage market players:
- when developing new varieties, to build in disease resistance in a sustainable manner, for example by stacking resistance genes (i.e. various different resistance genes in a single variety);
- to utilise mixed breeding systems, with different varieties in the field, thus reducing the rate of diseases breaking out; and
- to focus on both broadly applicable and niche varieties, aimed at both short-term (yield security) and long-term goals (which ensure continued access to broad genetic diversity).
Lesson 3: Invest in the know-how position of the Dutch potato sector
The three scenarios show that the leading position of the Dutch potato sector is not self-evident. However, the sector’s strong knowledge position can form the basis for a new business model in the form of the export of know-how. The sector can thus make a substantial contribution to optimising cultivation in other countries. This requires not only high-quality potato varieties but also knowledge of local production conditions and development of local potato infrastructures. With its knowledge of potato breeding, potato cultivation, and potato production chains, the Dutch potato sector can acquire a pivotal position in local production chains.
In order to continue to play a significant international role, it is therefore important for the Dutch potato sector and the Dutch government to continue to invest in the development of both basic and applied knowledge.
Preferred citation form:
Edelenbosch, R. and G. Munnichs (2020). Potatoes are the future – Three scenarios for hybrid potatoes and the global food supply. The Hague: Rathenau Instituut
Hybrid potato breeding could play an important role in the quest for ecological sustainability and world food security. However, it is not a foregone conclusion that this will actually happen. A technological innovation such as hybrid potato breeding does not follow a single possible path of development. How such innovation takes shape in actual practice is determined by the economic, social, and policy decisions made.
Within certain margins, companies can choose how sustainably they wish to operate and what contribution they wish to make to the world food issue. These choices are partly driven by the public pressure that civil-society organisations exert on companies, by regulations, and by government policy regarding knowledge and innovation. This means that companies, civil-society organisations, and the government all need to take action.