‘Potato Futures: impact of hybrid varieties’ | Conference Recap

Various companies (including Solynta, Bejo Seeds, HZPC and EASI Seeds) are working on hybrid potato breeding and we are on the eve of the market introduction of hybrid varieties The ‘Potato Futures: impact of hybrid varieties’ conference was organised to bring together, compare and contrast insights from breeders, farmers, industry, NGOs and policymakers to assess the possible future of hybrid potatoes in an international context.

The report of the conference ‘Potato Futures: impact of hybrid varieties’ that was held on 30 November 2020 describes the proceedings, discussion items and opinions about the impact of hybrid potato that were expressed during the conference. The main emphasis is on the industrialised world with Europe as an example and on lower income economies with Africa as an example. The speakers represented various stakeholders from private industries, universities and research centres, donor organisations, non-governmental organisations and policy makers. There was a common understanding that hybrid potato has great potential for future food security on a global scale, but the impact on potato systems may be regarded as a paradigm shift and will require major adjustments of existing potato systems. The joint and collaborative efforts of all partners in these systems is required for a successful implementation.

Key messages

Diploid hybrid potato as a system innovation

  • Hybrid potato breeding is a system innovation which may affect almost every step in the potato value chain. It can thus be seen as a disruptive and game changing technology, involving and affecting all players in the sector.
  • Potato breeding and cultivation will more and more follow the dynamics of the vegetable sector, characterized by the rapid introduction of new varieties, product diversification, higher nutritional value and the introduction of resistant and stress-tolerant cultivars.
  • For a further understanding of the impact of hybrid potato, we must distinguish between the value chain in high income and low income countries as different system contexts.

The future of hybrid potato: an agenda for debate

  • Hybrid potato seed may play a crucial role in the development of global and regional agri-food systems and consequently may strongly affect potato tuber cultivation and industry in the Netherlands.
  • The question of how to combine business opportunities for breeders with variety development that serves global food security in sustainable ways is one of the main challenges in hybrid potato innovation.
  • One of the most challenging problems in Africa is that farmers often keep inferior tubers as planting material instead of tubers with the highest quality. A successful introduction of hybrid potato will therefore require specialized seed potato growers who can produce and multiply certified potato planting material.

Opportunities and threats of hybrid potato for the Dutch agro-industrial potato sector

  • The involvement with every aspect of the potato value chain – breeding, cultivation, trade, processing, logistics and technology – makes the Netherlands a vibrant centre in the potato world.
  • Hybrid breeding and hybrid potato seed are important innovations for the sector because it may open new markets, especially in regions that are difficult to reach with the export of seed potatoes.
  • Although the market potential in Africa is still unclear, high-quality potatoes are crucial to help reach the SDG2 food security goals.
  • For Africa, however, we do need businesses willing to invest in producing true hybrid potato seed, maybe as part of corporate social responsibility. Alternatively the public sector could take up the challenge, although it generally has no convincing track-record in seed dissemination.
  • It is way too early to predict whether there are opportunities for the Netherlands to become a main exporter of hybrid potato seed, as the final determinant for success is the hybrid potato business model.
  • There is no reason to believe that in the international development context the informal seed potato market will disappear through legislation and IP. It will remain highly important for a long time to come.

Implications for (inter)national policy and regulation: round table discussion

  • Although current regulations are designed for seed potato tubers, no legislative hurdles are to be expected when hybrid seed will enter the market, only requiring minor adjustments of the current international UPOV regime for the protection of new varieties of plants.
  • There is much to win by strengthening informal seed systems and making regulation more inclusive, rather than just reinforcing established UPOV rules.
  • We need to engage farmers in participatory plant breeding, especially in cases where public breeding is marginal and breeding companies are not interested in the informal market segment.

Challenges and opportunities for the introduction of hybrid potato in an African and international development context

  • Potato as a vitally important crop to food security in Africa in the context of rapid population growth and urbanization, but we missed opportunities for increasing yields and farmer income.
  • We have to look at innovations as packages, thus asking ourselves what would be the component innovations of a hybrid seed innovation package and how to deal with context specificities and bottlenecks in ways that smallholders can benefit.
  • The biggest bottleneck for a widespread scaling of hybrid potato seed is the intermediate infrastructure that you need, including a network of nurseries with the capacity to raise plantlets from seeds, and competent producers of first generation tubers.
  • Dialogue and collaboration, involving the whole sector ‘diamond’, is crucial to see how to make innovation fit and to create both ‘push’ and ‘pull’.
  • A working system of plant variety protection is a crucial condition for seed companies to become active in countries and introduce high value varieties.
  • Seed certification is important for producers, but often will be too expensive for farmers to afford.

Key requirements for successful introduction of hybrid potato in Africa: experiences from the ground

  • Seeing is believing: we should make farmers understand the added value of hybrid quality seed through mutual learning in farmer field trials.
  • It is all important to clearly and timely inform potato farmers about the necessary changes in their farming practices when shifting from seed tubers to hybrid seed.
  • Current variety development does not focus on the particular needs of African potato systems and there seems to be little interest from the international seed potato industry to invest in African countries.
  • Even though farmers will keep to reusing commercially obtained potato planting material, there is plenty of room for market extension because only a very small percentage of farmers nowadays have access to quality seed.

Panel discussion

  • Without denying the importance of plant breeders rights, research done with public funds should reflect the public good of affordable planting material.
  • The interface between formal and informal seed systems requires flexible regulation, novel methods for access to seed and attention for the role of women as seed potato producers.
  • Hybrid breeding offers the opportunity to focus on traits specifically needed in Africa, also enabling potato cultivation in new environments and warmer climate zones.

Closing reflections by Louise Fresco

  • Undernutrition requires food that is affordable for the urban poor while offering income for the rural poor. This is only possible with an efficient organization of the food chain as a whole.
  • The introduction of hybrid seed requires an integrated chain approach and coordination at national level. So, partnerships are essential, no stakeholder can do this alone.
  • One important outcome of this conference could be the establishment of partnerships and a common platform to exchange lessons learned on business models that work.

The workshop report of the conference ‘Opportunities and challenges for hybrid potatoes in East Africa’ that was held on June 13-14 2019 in Ghent, Belgium can be found here.