Hybrid potato breeding is an innovative technique to develop new potato varieties. The technique works on the basis of natural breeding. There is, therefore, no active intervention in the genetic material, as is the case with genetic modification. Hybrid breeding works on the basis of 'pure' potato parent lines, which only have one variant of all genes. This ensures that a parent line always passes on the same gene package to offspring.
The method of hybrid breeding has two promises:
The use of pure parent lines makes it possible to improve varieties faster and in a more targeted way. New traits, for example, help with disease resistance of the potato, but can also be related to taste, colour or shape, higher yield or drought resistance.
A second promise is the possibility offered by hybrid breeding to grow potatoes directly from seeds instead of from seed potatoes (tubers). Hybrid seed produces plants and potatoes that are uniform. Moreover, seed is not susceptible to viral diseases and is much easier to transport and store than current potato tubers.
How can hybrid potato breeding live up to its promises?
Hybrid potato breeding can play an important role in the pursuit of ecological sustainability and world food security. If hybrid potato breeding is to fulfil this promise, it is important to focus on the following aspects.
Lesson 1: laws and regulations for the development of new varieties
Governments must guarantee this through national and international laws and regulations:
breeders retain access to genetic material and new knowledge;
breeders can make use of various breeding techniques; and
new potato varieties on the market are protected, so that it pays for breeders to invest in them.
Lesson 2: Ensure a diversity of genes, varieties and cultivation systems
The different ways in which hybrid breeding is used in the scenarios show that breeding technology alone does not solve sustainability and food security issues. It offers opportunities both for the unlocking of a broad genetic diversity and for the development of almost identical varieties, which only differ in the type of resistance genes built in. The technology can thus be used in different breeding strategies and breeding systems. It is important to encourage a diverse approach. Moreover, in order to embed it in society, careful consideration must be given to the combination of the variety, the cultivation system and the production chain. In the eyes of the stakeholders involved, the government is the appropriate party to set conditions so that hybrid potato breeding actually contributes to the set social tasks.
It is therefore up to the government to stimulate market stakeholders to do so:
in the development of new varieties to build in disease resistance in a sustainable manner, for example by using stacking of resistance genes (different resistance genes in one variety);
using mixed cropping systems, with different varieties in the field, reducing the rate of disease breakouts; and
to focus on both broadly applicable and niche varieties, aimed at both short-term (yield security) and long-term goals (giving access to broad genetic diversity).
Lesson 3: focus on knowledge position in the Dutch sector
The 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 earnings model in the form of exporting knowledge. In this way, the potato sector can make a substantial contribution to more optimal cultivation in other countries. Global cultivation not only requires good potato varieties, but also knowledge of local production conditions and the development of local potato infrastructures. With knowledge about potato breeding, potato cultivation and potato chains, the Dutch sector can acquire a link position in local chains. In order to continue to play a significant international role, it is important that the Dutch potato sector and the government continue to invest in the development of fundamental and applied knowledge.
Why did the Rathenau Institute carry out research into hybrid potato breeding?
The potato is one of the most cultivated food crops on earth. The Netherlands is a big player in the export of seed potatoes to the rest of the world and the worldwide demand for potatoes and potato products is growing. At the same time, the potato is a vulnerable crop for which many chemical protective agents are used. Various Dutch companies are now using hybrid potato breeding to improve potato varieties and develop potatoes that grow from seeds. The promises of this technology for sustainability and food security are great.
But a new technology is not enough. The potato on your plate is the end result of a complex production chain that is influenced by all kinds of forces, such as the development of new technology, but also policy, changing climate conditions and the international food market. An important question for the Rathenau Instituut is under what conditions a technological innovation such as hybrid potato breeding can actually contribute to a sustainable and secure food supply. This is in line with our earlier research into the social embedding of innovations.
How did the Rathenau investigate the future of hybrid potato breeding?
‘The’ future cannot be predicted. We live in a complex world, in which far-reaching changes sometimes take place in a relatively short period of time. Drawing up future scenarios is a means of stimulating the imagination and structuring discussions about wishes and expectations for the future. Such scenarios broaden the perspective and increase insight into the possible future course of relevant developments, their interrelationships and their economic and social effects.
In this study three future scenarios around potato cultivation were developed for the year 2040. The scenarios are based on possible economic and social developments which could have a major impact on (global) potato cultivation and food supply, but for which it is uncertain whether they will actually take place. Precisely such developments with a potentially large impact, but also a large degree of uncertainty, stimulate reflection and call for timely discussion. The following uncertain developments form the basis of three different scenarios.
Who will have the power in the potato sector in 2040?
What are the main market and consumer trends in 2040?
What are the most important technological trends in 2040?
Will the focus in 2040 be on intensive or extensive agriculture?
Each of the three scenarios has its own storyline with desirable and undesirable aspects. With the development of the future scenarios it has also been investigated whether there are conditions that (can) contribute to a socially responsible use of hybrid potato breeding in all three scenarios.
Who did the Rathenau Institute work with during this research?
This research is one of the three sub-studies of the Potareiproject, in which the Rathenau Instituut collaborated with Wageningen University & Research, the University of Groningen and the seed company Solynta, the first company to publish on hybrid potato breeding. The Potarei project is part of the NWO research programme Socially Responsible Innovation.
The project is supervised by a valorisation panel, consisting of representatives of the agrifood and potato sector, ministries, knowledge institutes and social parties. A specially formed advisory board with experts in the field of future foresight has advised the Rathenau Instituut on the development of the scenarios and the design of two associated workshops.
Many other stakeholders from within and outside the sector also contributed to the research. We spoke with breeders, seed potato farmers, trading houses, civil society organisations, experts and policy makers about their expectations and wishes regarding the future of the hybrid potato. The framework for the scenarios was developed partly on the basis of 19 interviews, and the scenarios were further elaborated and deepened during two workshops and a number of discussions.