Starch Trek: What it Takes to Breed a New Potato Variety

Written on 09/25/2018
Marcel Bruins

Of the top 10 food crops in the world, potato comes in at the third place, and is also the number one non-grain food product. Originally grown in the Andes, the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the 16th century, and, after a bumpy start, potatoes have been a very popular food source in the past two centuries. The potato offers a healthful low calorie, high fibre food that offers significant protection against cardiovascular disease and cancer. Additionally, potato tubers are a very good source of vitamin B6 and a good source of potassium, copper, vitamin C, manganese, phosphorus, niacin, dietary fibre, and pantothenic acid. They also contain a variety of phytonutrients that have antioxidant activity. No wonder this is such a beloved crop across the globe. European Seedsat down with some of the major potato breeding companies in Europe to learn more about the challenges and opportunities of breeding new potato varieties. Piet Smeenge, Director of Kweekbedrijf Smeenge-Research, Vanessa Prigge, Project Manager Crop Improvement at Solana, Gerard Backx, CEO of HZPC, Jan-Paul Bandsma, Product Manager at de Nijs Potatoes, and Guus Heselmans, Manager R&D of C. Meijer B.V. provided insight on this heavily favoured crop.

Potato breeding versus the breeding of seed crops

Smeenge states that potato-breeding takes a lot of time as there can be only one selection per year. He says in total it takes 10-12 years before protection   and listing. “With seed-crops, hybrid breeding is possible, so there you only need a few years for creating new varieties. In potato, hybrid-breeding is (still) not possible, however, KWS, Solynta, HZPC and Bejo are working on it. So maybe it will be possible in the coming 10 years.”

Gerard Backx, CEO of HZPC

Backx concurs, indicating that the multiplication rate of a vegetatively propagated crop is much slower, making the selection process slower and the introduction phase longer. “Hence, much more years are required.” He says on the other hand, the maintenance of the genetics is simple as the genetics do not change. In general, vegetatively propagated crops have a much more complex genome, which is the biggest hurdle. “Potato is tetraploid and enormously heterogeneous. Working with diploid plants is possible, but so far this is only done in a research phase. Apart from that, double haploids might be an option, but not an easy route.”

Bandsma agrees: “When you have a good variety produced by the vegetatively way, you know what kind variety you will get after multiplication (always the same). In a seed propagated crop there is always difference in the progeny. Although potatoes are multiplied vegetatively, it is possible to improve a variety by traditional stem selection. For example, you can improve tuber count, tuber shape or other things.”

The main challenges associated with the vegetative nature of potato production are the low multiplication rate and the high risk of transmission of tuber-borne diseases.

Prigge says in maize for example, with the seeds of one single testcross ear you can sow yield trials in several locations, even in replicated designs, already in the first field year. In potato in contrast, it easily takes beyond the fourth field year to reliably assess tuber yield performance in a similar experimental design due to the low multiplication rate of less than 15 tubers per plant which means that the first years are dedicated to tuber production for testing purposes. “This clearly lengthens the breeding cycle and also impacts the selection decisions: at the time of the first yield trials, out of necessity due to limited storage capacity for this bulky crop, more than 99% of the original material may already have been discarded based on visually assessable traits such as tuber traits and breeder’s visual preference. In addition, every multiplication cycle bears the risk of infection with tuber-borne diseases, especially viruses, so that extensive testing of tuber samples from each selected genotype is performed.” She says another major disadvantage of the vegetative propagation is the ease of farm-saved seed, which in some market segments for example in European countries easily amounts to 50%, while in emerging countries it is not uncommon to observe 90% FSS without compensation. “Considering that revenues from seed sales and royalties are breeders’ main source of income, much is lost that could otherwise be reinvested in R & D activities,” she adds.

A major disadvantage of the vegetative propagation of potato is the ease of farm-saved seed, which in some market segments and some countries can amount to more than 50%, without compensation to the breeder

Heselmans shares that in principle the goal is same as in any crop: combine positive traits to retrieve genetic gain. In case of potatoes to be marketed as vegetative crop there are no hurdles like inbreeding to reach homozygosity. This hurdle has to be taken in case route of F1-hybrid true potato seed (TPS) breeding is chosen. “Clonal multiplication of potatoes does require more time (factor 8-10) compared to true seed F1 hybrids. Overall, complexity of genetics of the nowadays cultivated potato is a challenge due to its tetraploid and heterozygote nature, this applies for whole field of potato breeding,” he says.

Source: HZPC

Important breeding goals in the potato breeding programs

The potato market is not one market says Backx. Potato for processing (starch, crisps, French fries) requires other characteristics than the potatoes for the fresh consumption. For processing, items like colour, success in the processing and the efficiency in the factory are important. Also, taste, length, etc. “Those words translate easily in a long list of characteristics one has to search for. Next to that it needs yield, disease resistance/tolerances etc. for the grower. Can you store and handle the variety or not?

Can you harvest the variety mechanically? Can you produce seed potatoes of that variety? All those items are important“ he states. “On the other hand, for the fresh market, the taste, the skin, the colour, the appeal etc. are important. The fresh market is very diverse. Different areas have different preferences and consumers like to have potatoes for firm cooking, or to make mashed potatoes, or home French fries. All those uses require other characteristics. Therefore, we have clearly defined for what markets we like to create varieties and what selection criteria we need to score. For every sub-segment of the market, it is a long list of characteristics.”

In short, Prigge says those include quality, agronomic performance, and disease resistance. “In reality, there are more than 50 traits that our potato breeders take into account during the selection process, which means that the selection intensity per trait is quite low. We develop improved potato varieties for many potato sectors, mainly the crisp and French fry industry, starch industry, and the retail sector, all on a global scale. Hence, next to a set of common goals like early maturity or yield capacity for all segments, there are always additional goals specific to the demands of a certain market segment,” she adds.

Guus Heselmans, Manager R&D of C. Meijer B.V.

According to Heselmans, yield, stability, resilience and quality in crop and processing are the most important. Potato crops grow for a period of 80-150 days exposed to climatic shocks and diseases. Then, in many regions, part of the crop has to be stored for a long time. “To have a reliable result of the potato crop within the whole chain it is a challenge to combine all these factors. Sustainability is the key factor in decision making in potato breeding.”

For Bandsma, the most important goals are underwater weight (high dry matter content), early to medium early maturity (early tuberisation is also OK), a strong tolerance against heat and drought, and usefulness for French fries, crisps, export varieties and table potato (yellow fleshed). “Potato is attacked by several diseases, such as Late blight, Common Scab, Silver Scurf and Rhizoctonia, and many others, so we need a good resistance against those diseases.”

Smeenge lists yield, consumer-acceptance, resistance to diseases, adaptation to different climates and usefulness for table, crisps and French fries as the most important breeding goals for his company.

Finding the genetic diversity for disease resistances

“We are shareholders of the breeding company FOBEK, and they are making crosses based on our wishes. They have quite a genetic diversity for resistances. They are getting their genetic diversity from their own seed lines/varieties, making their own crosses, backcrosses and cooperation between different companies” says Bandsma. “Secondly, we work with free hobby breeders. They also have a genetic diversity for the genes. They get their genetics from their own seed lines/varieties, making their own crosses, working together with other hobby breeders and trying to get seed lines/varieties from the potato companies. Our goals on resistances are potato cyst nematodes (PCN), wart disease, virus, common, scab and late blight.”

For Prigge, the relevance of a disease for the potato breeding programme depends on the anticipated market. “For example, at the moment resistance to the white nematode Globodera pallidais in high demand for varieties for European farmers, no matter what market segment. New and highly virulent nematode strains have been found which had overcome resistance of the commonly used resistant varieties. In this case, we return to the vast collection of potato relatives that are held in genebank collections to identify genotypes that are resistant against these more virulent G. pallidastrains and try to introgress these loci into our improved breeding populations. We did the same for Late Blight or Root Knot Nematode resistance, because little genetic variation for resistance against these diseases was available in the European potato varieties.” She says in other diseases such as Blackleg there is hardly any breeding possible because “we lack the prerequisites for breeding progress: genetic variation and an efficient and reliable phenotyping system.”

Resistance breeding is an important column in the Meijer breeding program says Heselmans. In areas with intensive cultivation, soil-born diseases like wart-disease and nematodes give huge problems, whereas late blight globally is an important threat. Besides that, for many other diseases like silverscab, common scab and virus there is a minimum level of resistance required. “To retrieve resistance towards diseases into our commercial potato breeding program, Meijer co-operates with universities and genebanks to introgress new resistance genes from wild species. It is of huge importance that genetic diversity is maintained. For that reason, recently a group of Dutch potato breeders decided to actively support the Dutch genebank (CGN) to maintain and release new material.”

Source: Solana

According to Smeenge, nematodes and then especially the two species Globodera rostochiensisand G. pallidaare the most important pests. He draws his genetic diversity from starch-varieties, from the gene-bank at Wageningen University (WUR), and from his own breeding lines. “Second is late blight and we get our diversity from the Louis Bolk Institute through the ‘Bio-Impuls’ Program, and his own breeding material. And third: common scab and virus. Diversity comes from his own breeding program which is already in existence for more than 45 years.”

In potato breeding it is of huge importance that genetic diversity is maintained.

Backx says the diseases that are most important depends partly what the variety will be used for and in which area it will grow. Late blight is a disease you find everywhere so resistance to this disease is very important. However, a single resistance is quickly broken. So, you need to work on complex multiple resistances, which is not easy. “We should not forget that common scab is not for all growers in all areas an issue. Other items like nematode resistance are the most important. The genetic diversity for the resistances he finds in the gene-bank, but also uses other Solanum types and existing varieties. That is the common way to create genepools,” he says.

Late blight, cisgenesis, and further breeding

According to Backx, the resistance can only be effective if it is a multiple resistance, based on different systems. The fungus is that quick to adapt. Through classic breeding this is hardly possible. With cisgenesis it has been realised. “Here you get to the question whether a product created through cisgenesis should be allowed on the market. It is one of the ‘new breeding technologies’ that was already reported on in previous issues of European Seed. If we could use those techniques, it would help the breeders and with that the farmers and environment enormously. Personally, I would be in favour to allow a proper cisgenesis product as long as you can prove there is no ‘strange DNA’ (= of completely another species) in it.”

Heselmans shares that Meijer supports the position of Plantum on this subject which indicates that cisgenesis is a new plant breeding method that does not result in foreign DNA in the end product, so no species barriers are not crossed and should, according to the Dutch government, not be regulated as GMO

Jan-Paul Bandsma, Product Manager at de Nijs Potatoes

Bandsma believes there are sufficient genes against late blight. “The only thing which is very important is we need to stack more genes of late blight into a potato variety/seed line. We think it is possible to achieve a good variety which is very strong to late blight without cisgenesis. It will take some time! We know the FOBEK has good genetic diversity for the late blight genes. We don’t like GMO, but we believe that cisgenesis could be a good addition to the potato breeding. Using genes against late blight from another Solanumfamily, could be a good opportunity to solve the problem. On the other hand, how quickly will the late blight fungus be able to adjust/break the resistance?”

Smeenge says that his view on this is that with cisgenesis they are transplanting genes within the species Solanum tuberosum(potato). “In fact, this is the same as we do in making normal crossings. The benefit of cisgenesis is that it can lead to a new variety in a very short time! So, I think it should be released for production and special for further breeding. However, I am against transplantation of genes between different species (e.g. potato and sugarbeet). I have an ethical problem: we are going to play God!”

With cisgenesis you can develop stable resistances more efficiently in potato breeding.

Several late blight resistant varieties have been commercialized lately that were bred by classical methods of recombination and selection says Prigge, “including our variety ‘Connect’. So, it is possible. These varieties stem from extensive research and pre-breeding efforts in both the public and the private potato sectors that aimed at exploiting resistance loci from unadapted Solanumspecies for introgression breeding programmes in potato. Whilst these pre-breeding activities are very time-consuming, sustainable R gene stewardship requires stacking of several R genes, and that’s where we see the great advantage of the new breeding techniques, because with e.g. cisgenesis you can develop stable resistances more efficiently.”

Breeding for tolerance to abiotic stress

Heselmans says they actively select and breed for salt, drought and heat tolerance. He adds it is a challenge to find the locations to test these stresses in a reliable and consistent way, but within the European Union they have managed to find places for these specific traits. “A bigger challenge is to find genetic clues on these traits,” he adds.

Smeenge shares that he breeds for tolerance to abiotic stresses, which occur in different places in the world such as heavy wind, heat, drought, short-day, salt-tolerance, etc.

Prigge says they are involved in research projects on abiotic stress tolerance such as drought and salinity, but don’t have special breeding programs for this yet. “Rather, we trial our advanced material under organic growing conditions and under diverse climatic conditions where they are subjected to several abiotic stresses naturally occurring in these environments. A certain tolerance to abiotic stress is a must-have for every successful variety.”

Most of the potatoes in the world are grown in Asia and Africa in dry circumstances says Backx. ”So, several abiotic stress items are very important for the varieties for those markets. Stress factors such as drought or heat are important. Salt is important as well as irrigated areas are getting more and more salty. I would say that heat is the most important. Water efficiency is important as well. However, we should realise that potato is a crop that is already as crop very water efficient.”

Bandsma indicates that his company is indeed breeding for varieties which are strong to drought, heat and salty conditions. “Heat and drought are not only a problem in the Mediterranean area, Africa and other parts we are exporting our seeds to. The weather in Europe is becoming more extreme as well. So, we need potatoes which are strong to heat and drought (or have a good tolerance) in combination with an early – medium early maturity. When the seed potatoes have good harvesting size we hopefully can start earlier with harvesting, before it starts raining.”

Focusing on improved nutritional and health characteristics in your new potato varieties

Backx says potatoes are very healthy in general, and one could eat all day only potatoes for weeks and with that still get a balanced food intake. But it is possible to make the potato even healthier. “In fact, in our breeding program we work on health characteristics, such as potatoes with a low glycemic index or low caloric French fries, to serve those that ask for these types of products.”

A person could eat all day only potatoes for weeks and still get a balanced food intake.

Bandsma says they try to but focusing on health isn’t their first goal. “Our biggest market is selling seed potatoes for export. We are spreading our opportunities, so for our small table potato segment we try to focus on it.”

Vanessa Prigge, Project Manager Crop Improvement at Solana

Prigge says many of Solana’s crisp and French fry varieties have very low reducing sugar content after cold storage for a longer period, a trait that they specifically focus on in their breeding programme to deliver varieties with reduced acrylamide formation during frying. This is a complex trait which requires adjustments in both the carbohydrate as well as amino acid metabolisms, which are challenging to improve with classical breeding methods.

Especially in comparison with staple foods like rice and cereals, potato is considered in itself a healthy crop, says Heselmans. “We do not force to have all positive nutritious elements in potato knowing that this can be added by other products in a healthy diet. However, we keep track to increase positive elements like anti-oxidants and to decrease negative elements like glycol-alkaloids and acrylamides.”

Smeenge says in their breeding program they do not really focus on these aspects, with the only exception of breeding for a low SGA-level (steroidal glycoalkaloids).

Other breeding targets (e.g. improved quality?) to spend resources on

“We focus mainly on low sugar content, good quality for French fries and crisps and red varieties for the ‘red market’, in addition to a nice skin-finish for pre-packing, and no-greening of the tubers in day-light,” says Smeenge.

The breeders agree that for the processing industry, it is important to know the requirements of the clients of the processing industry. These clients determine partly the variety that needs to be processed for them, where colour and length are important items.

Backx states that for table varieties, the shape is important. The variety needs to have a smooth skin (no deep eyes), so you can peel them easy if you like to peel them, or they look nice if you boil them with the skin. “In addition, our company works on various different concepts, such as on coloured potatoes, under the Perupas concept, on the Sunita concept, the Pommonde concept etc. You can find more information on our websites. This all to offer the supermarkets alternatives.”

Bandsma says their main focus for Europe is varieties which are suitable for the processing.

For Heselmans, a variety should have added value to the potato chain, starting with the consumer. “The target is to combine traits in such a way that the sum of traits results in an improved variety whereas no single trait will be below a minimum level.”

Prigge believes that quality is indeed a major breeding goal in potato, but again the specific requirement depends on the market segment. “For example, there is currently high demand for reducing acrylamide levels in fried potato products due to official recommendations following a recent risk analysis of the European Food Safety Authority,” says Prigge. “That means that it may not be sufficient to score processing varieties purely visually for their frying colour, which is the current method of choice, but actual acrylamide levels may need to be measured which would require sophisticated equipment and be costlier. Also, diseases are challenging in potato, especially under the intensive cropping systems in Europe, so we spend quite some resources on resistance testing, both with molecular tools as well as with bioassays.”

Main source of diversity

Backx says they work a lot on our own genepool to create parent plants. “Commercial varieties, but especially material from genebanks is used. But we also go back to material originating from the Andes. We support the custodian farmers in the Andes to maintain the enormous collection of old potato varieties.”Smeenge shares that the main source of diversity in his breeding program are his own-bred varieties (more than 20) and seedlings (own germplasm). “I also use varieties/seedlings from colleague breeders or potato-companies.”

We support the custodian farmers in the Andes to maintain the enormous collection of old potato varieties.

Heselmans shares they do use varieties from colleague breeders from over the whole globe and we also make use of new genetic sources, as described above. “Besides that part of parents, we use parents that have been pre-bred in our own program.”

Prigge concurs that the major source of variation is the pool of commercial varieties. However, due to the extremely high number of selection traits in potato, the choice of crossing parents is never of the type ‘best-by-best’ but is always a compromise. “For specific traits that are not available in the variety pool, we are lucky to have a vast collection of wild and unadapted potato relatives in public gene banks and we make use of these in introgression breeding programmes. The challenge is to get rid of the undesired characteristics of these wild species that come as linkage drag during the introgression, such as late maturity, long stolons, deep eyes, low yield, poor tuber shapes, and so on,” Prigge notes.

Bandsma indicates that his company is not looking for the necessary germplasm as it is the job of their breeding company FOBEK. “When we think that certain material could be interesting germplasm, we will ask the breeder or potato company which owns the material and will send it to FOBEK. So, the necessary germplasm can be a commercial variety, a seed line which just isn’t good enough, seed lines containing resistances genes (for example BIO-impuls) or other.”

Access to new germplasm, new regulations on access and benefit sharing

Prigge says that in potato there are thousands of accessions available from gene banks. “With this genetic diversity at hand and with a tetraploid crop, if anything, we need to find resources to better characterize the available germplasm to make better use of it in breeding and find ways of fixing desirable allele combinations. Also, except for Solanum phureja, potato is listed in Annex 1 of the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources in Food and Agriculture and, hence, the Nagoya protocol does not apply. We are fully supportive of the ITPGRFA and the ongoing process to enhance the functioning of the multilateral system of access and benefit sharing”.

Heselmans says that until now they did not have too much difficulty considering new regulations on access and benefit sharing, however they do foresee a lot of bureaucracy in the future when new material is taken into our program. “We believe that breeders and PVP legislation by itself already play an important role with (genetic) benefit sharing, by releasing varieties and have these varieties freely used by other breeders for crossing. Breeders exemption enhances innovation.”

Breeders and PVP legislation play an important role with (genetic) benefit sharing, by releasing varieties so they can be freely used by others for crossing. The breeders’ exemption enhances innovation.

Bandsma is of the opinion that they have sufficient access to new germplasm because FOBEK is responsible for their breeding program. And Smeenge feels that there is enough access to new germplasm, e.g. through the gene-bank in Wageningen.

Backx does not agree: “Yes, those regulations make it more cumbersome to get material and maybe very expensive. We are not against the principle. But we should not block plant breeding and variety improvement.”

Development investment: Time and money

Heselmans says that breeding a variety from crossing to release will take a period of 8-9 years, followed by first commercialisation and multiplication which carries a lot of financial risks as well.

Bandsma indicates that it takes around 15 years to breed and introduce a new variety. “In this breeding it is the time starting from the cross and selection and all the trial fields in The Netherlands and abroad. When the variety is in the registration process we are setting up traditional stem selection and mini tuber production. This material is going to one or more growers. We estimate that it takes around €150,000 to develop a new variety.”

Prigge indicates that it takes about 15 years from the initial cross to market penetration of a potato variety. “One major factor in this lengthy process is the slow rate of tuber production, both in the initial breeding process as well as later on during seed potato production needed for introduction into the market. If special trait loci from unadapted germplasm need to be introgressed, decades of research and pre-breeding activities may precede the variety development phase.”

Backx shares that it takes 10 years to select a new variety properly “and after that we need certainly five years to introduce a variety and to create planting material. That is a slow process. Breeding a new variety for variety introduction certainly costs around 3 million Euro.”

Piet Smeenge, Director of Kweekbedrijf Smeenge-Research

Smeenge comes to similar numbers: “We need 10-14 years and between 2 and 3 million Euro per new variety.”

Future products: Meeting growers’ needs

“We try to think and talk about the wishes for the future with all the clients: growers, packers, consumers, industries, etc. It is difficult to look 14 years ahead in the future,” says Smeenge.

Backx says they have to make sure the varieties are aligned with what the customers want. “And that is not in the first place the grower. The grower is second or third, I would say. We need to predict what we think the consumer preferences are. Therefore, we need to communicate with them, we need to analyse market trends etc. A lot of marketing work is spent on that.”

Prigge says Solana has its roots in agriculture and has always had a very close link to growers. “However, in potato we need not only take the growers’ demands into account, but the end consumers are equally relevant, and these are individual consumers in the super market as well as packers and the processing industry. At the Solana-Group, breeders work very closely with product managers and area sales managers and the feedback goes both directions, thus influencing the whole breeding process from the choice of crossing parents to the final selection decisions and relevant markets for introduction,” she adds.

Source: HZPC

Bandsma mentions that first they look at what their customers/clients want. “When they are happy, mostly based on results from abroad, we are setting up multiplications. The growers look at tuber count, resistances against diseases, strong against heat and drought, strong against damaging, but most important is how much money they receive per hectare. Also, the maturity of all the varieties they grow, is very important (depending how much hectares a grower grows).”

Heselmans says as a breeding company they are active in the whole chain, both to introduce and support their varieties as to learn for new breeding strategies. Then, it is important that a selection program is designed in such way that practical cultivation of the candidates is predicted in a proper way, both for common practice as for divergent situations like drought-stress and high disease pressure.

Biggest challenges for a breeder when developing a new potato variety?

Backx says the biggest challenge is to find the correct compromise. “You never find a variety with all the required characteristics. But the total package needs to be close to what is required for that market segment. Understanding the needs of the customers is very important.”

Bandsma also agrees that the biggest challenge for a breeder is to look into the future. “You want a variety for specific market and it takes around 15 years the breed it. When you are going to introduce the variety, is it still what the market wants?”

Prigge identifies three major challenges. “First, we deal with (too) many commercially relevant selection traits which limits the selection intensity per trait to less than 50% and requires constant compromises in the choice of parental combinations. Second, the low tuber multiplication rate (<15 for potato versus e.g. 1000 for rape seed) leads to a lengthy breeding cycle and only allows assessment of complex traits at later stages, while the early selection decisions are based on visual assessment of one or few plants and traits with low heritability. Third, the tetraploid and highly heterozygous nature of the crop makes working with recessive traits tedious and fixation of favourable allele combinations almost impossible, while fostering a high genetic burden due to hiding of deleterious alleles in the tetraploid genome.”

Smeenge concurs, stating that his biggest challenge is to present the right variety at the right moment for the right market (so, not too early and not too late).

Heselmans underlines that it is notdeveloping of the variety itself, that it is nothaving the variety registered for PVP/VCU, but that is to have the variety grown to a serious commercial value. According to him, this is not a breeding effort, but a company effort.

Innovations (technological, genetic, molecular etc.) in the pipeline

Prigge says pipeline innovations are haplotype-based breeding; genomic selection; gene editing; and likely F1 hybrid breeding with diploid inbred parents.

Smeenge concurs: “In the pipeline are hybrid breeding (see also Q1), genetic modification (cisgenesis), Crispr-CAS and molecular selection (less time needed).”

Bandsma says FOBEK (and the other shareholders) are developing marker technology to trace if there is a certain gene/resistance in a seed line/variety. “By this innovation we exclude more seed lines which do not have a certain gene/resistance. Also, this could be an advantage for selecting seed lines/varieties for making new crosses.”

Source: Smeenge

According to Heselmans, innovation in itself is not a goal but using innovation to accelerate your breeding program in speed, magnitude and quality is the key. “Indeed, breeders nowadays have a whole range of possibilities in this area. More and more knowledge on the potato genetics can be obtained, also in-house with all kind DNA platforms and approaches available. However, we have to realise that potato has 40,000 genes in many allelic variants with still unknown interactions. The best innovation is to make best choices in investment of people, time and money on the DNA oriented approach in balance with an efficient, reliable and fast field selection; a balance between genotyping and phenotyping!”

According to Backx, the big question is whether the hybrid varieties will lead to better and marketable varieties in the coming decade. “Once that will work, can we produce true potato seed of those varieties? This will lead to a possibility to enter markets we can not enter at the moment. Out of the 19 million ha of potatoes in the world, most growers do not get proper seed potatoes or proper varieties. This is due to phytosanitary, political, or logistic barriers.”

Out of the 19 million ha of potatoes in the world, most growers do not get proper seed potatoes or proper varieties, due to phytosanitary, political, or logistic barriers.

Hurdles when breeding and commercializing a potato variety

Backx identifies a number of hurdles: “First of all, the new breeding technologies and not being able to use them. Secondly, the limitation to transport tubers from one area in the world to other areas. Thirdly, the number of countries with no breeders’ rights or no respect for breeders’ rights, and lastly, the difficult procedures to require variety registration.”

Smeenge agrees. “It is a pity, that the protection of breeders’ rights is not yet well regulated in parts of the world (e.g. Asia, China and India). Most of the countries in the world are UPOV-members, but in many countries, there is no organisation for control the breeders’ rights.”

Heselmans shares that PVP regulations in most cases is well organized but as breeder of a vegetatively multiplied crop illegal multiplication is the biggest hurdle. “This income reduction gives pressure on research budget, thus further development,” he says.

Protection of breeders’ rights is not yet well regulated in parts of the world and in many countries, there is no organisation for the control of breeders’ rights.

Bandsma mentions he hasn’t experienced any hurdles in breeding. “A hurdle in commercialization can be the competition with varieties which are in the same market. Also, a problem in commercialization can be that suddenly expressions show up in a new promising variety which we didn’t expect. These things mostly appear when a variety is grown on bigger scale.”

Prigge believes the biggest hurdle is the regulatory insecurity concerning new breeding technologies like gene editing. “We are almost set to apply these new tools to develop custom-made varieties having benefits for growers, consumers and the environment, but before even thinking about commercialisation, we need the guarantee that these new products will not be regulated as GMO.”


Guus Heselmans, Manager R&D of C. Meijer B.V.

Guus Heselmans studied Plant Breeding (T13) in Wageningen, The Netherlands between 1983 and 1989. After a military service at Fanfarekorps Limburgse Jagers and three years as ornamental breeder at Pothos Plant in Monster, Heselmans started in 1993 as potato breeder at C. Meijer BV in Rilland, NL. In almost 25 years Heselmans has actively been involved in a continuous development of the breeding program towards a modern and global operating R&D program as it is now.

Jan-Paul Bandsma, Product Manager at de Nijs Potatoes

Bandsma studied horticulture and agriculture, specialising in ‘plant production’ at the Van Hall Institute in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. Bandsma’s work experience includes the Dutch General Inspection Service (NAK), seven years in the potato and cereal breeding, three years as teacher Plant Production, and since 2002, a breeder at FOBEK.

Vanessa Prigge, Project Manager Crop Improvement at Solana

Prigge completed her PhD in Plant Breeding and Applied Genetics at University of Hohenheim, Germany and CIMMYT, Mexico. She ran the potato pre-breeding program of the Solana-Group for five years and is now responsible for R&D project management at Solana.

Piet Smeenge, Director of Kweekbedrijf Smeenge-Research

Smeenge has been a breeder since 1972. First, in combination with propagation & a selection company, then together with his father. Since 1992, he has been a full-time breeder on his own. His education includes three years of Higher Professional Education and a diploma from the Agricultural High School in Dronten, The Netherlands. This was followed by education for teaching Arable Crops and Agricultural Technology. Smeenge also successfully completed the course Biotechnology in Wageningen.

Gerard Backx, CEO of HZPC

Gerard Backx studied plant breeding and marketing at Wageningen University and worked all his life in the seed industry, working on different field crops. From 2001 onwards, he leads HZPC, specialised in potatoes. HZPC started in the year 2000 after a merger of two almost 100 year existing companies.