Vegetable pre-breeding vital for global food security -

Vegetable pre-breeding vital for global food security

While breeding programs abound in the produce industry, the process of pre-breeding for specific traits is scarcely mentioned despite its role as a foundation for so many foods we take for granted and its potential to forge the crops of the future. At we speak with World Vegetable Center (AVRDC) director general Dyno Keatinge who calls for greater public-private collaboration in the area - particularly with indigenous vegetables - to ensure resistance or tolerance to diseases, pests, heat and drought.

It may sound awfully technical and has historically been mostly limited to public sector or intergovernmental agencies, but pre-breeding is the backbone of produce development in the face of changing and challenging growing conditions.

African eggplant

African eggplant

"Pre-breeding prepares you for the breeding process with specific parents which have a quality you don't have in your current germplasm," says Keatinge, whose group has 60,000 seed accessions in both global and indigenous vegetables.

"Most tomatoes worldwide would have some of the AVRDC genes which protects against the leaf curl virus. That would be a classic example," he says, highlighting a contribution of the agency whose initialism comes from its previous name as the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center.

"We produce a lot of new parental material that private sector seed companies then use to make their own hybrids."

But a key issue for Keatinge is that those same companies are not always as open to sharing as the groups that have given them genetic material free of charge.

"My only concern is that the private sector have historically received germplasm from the public sector essentially free-of-charge for the last 100 years or so, but their unwillingness to help the public sector to survive in terms of making payments to them, means that our particular existence is threatened to an extent," he says.

"There is no guarantee that the public sector and international agencies will continue onwards if governments are forced to cut back in times of financial crises.

He says this kind of scenario would be "very dangerous" not only for those involved in pre-breeding programs, but for companies and vegetable consumers who depend on this kind of research.

"That's because we know that viruses are rapidly occurring, and we need to be able to keep pace with those things. We need to have resistant varieties as best we can do.

"If the pre-breeding end of the pipeline is blocked or ceases to function, then in five to 10 years' time when the new sources run out, then we’re going to be in trouble."

Dyno Keatinge, speaking at the International Horticultural Congress last month in Brisbane

Dyno Keatinge, speaking at the International Horticultural Congress last month in Brisbane last month

He says the problem with indigenous vegetables is that even though there could be between 1,000-2,000 plant species with potential to be used as vegetables, not all of them can be developed from the wild to cultivated stage.

"We've been forced to pick 10-15 particular species that we concentrate on and put through breeding cycles and that type of thing - they will be fine.

"We have the gene bank in Taiwan but with the political issues that abound these days, there is no guarantee that the gene bank will continue to survive.

"We do send samples to the Svalbard Seed Vault, but if we ever have to rely on that particular source then we certainly will be in trouble."

This is not to say that Keatinge is anti-private sector, as his views are quite the opposite. He understands the importance of making money for the developers of wholesome, nutrient-rich vegetables, and also that the profit motive might not be there for the laborious efforts needed to obtain disease- and pest-resistant traits.

"We are certainly finding that collaboration with the private sector in Africa is proving to be very fruitful for both sides of the equation, certainly in indigenous vegetables," he says.

"Many of the smaller seed companies are willing to sell open pollinated ones without exclusivity for the varieties, and they're much better at getting the message out to farmers so that essentially the ability to distribute seed is very much improved when you work with the private sector.

"In Africa for example, the white African eggplant is now one of the big growers. We find that's the most profitable to grow in Tanzania now, and it's popular in many other locations."

A looping feedback with industry and seed associations is also a must for pre-breeding that the private sector wants.

"We have close association with the APSA (the Asia-Pacific Seed Association) and the AFSA (African Seed Association), and many of the private sector breeders will come to our annual field days to select materials they would like to use as parents of their next series of hybrids," he says.

"They are quite closely attuned to what we’re doing, and we also ask them what they would like us to produce so we do have an interactive process.

"I'm very pro private sector, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to change what I do."

Hybrid seeds and embedding vegetables in government policy

Another key point raised by Keatinge is the fact there is a restricted range of species available in seed, and a lot of hybrid seeds are not well adapted to areas where the AVRDC focuses in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

"Farmers there have not yet made the transition to hybrid seed technology, so there's a bit of a gap in that most of the national programs which previously might have produced open pollinated varieties, many of them are much less well-endowed than perhaps than their brothers and sisters in the wheat and rice area, so it’s actually quite hard for farmers to get a hold of improved varieties," he says.

"For many farmers in the developing world, these seeds aren't accessible or affordable. Therefore the public sector has to continue to play an important role.

"The AVRDC does it’s bit as far as that is concerned but the trouble is that the research investment worldwide in fruit and vegetables is so small in the public sector compared to rice or maize for example, that all of these crops are more expensive than they need to be."

He says government policies where the future of vegetables and other minor crops were better considered would lead to a more desirable result.

"For example, I've argued with many of the major players in the world who are seeking to feed the world in 2050, that to feed the world in 2050 yet not nourish it at the same time is essentially a self-defeating policy," he says.

"Mostly people are speaking about calories, so that means maize, wheat and rice. The legume crops, which are major protein sources of course, get fairly short shrift but they get more than fruit and vegetables; they’re very much down the bottom end of the line."

This is not the case everywhere however, with Keatinge citing two Asian countries that have shown how good horticultural policy can lead to positive outcomes.

"The government of Vietnam is a good example – they have a very dynamic agricultural research and development sector," he says.

"They've become some of the world’s greatest producers in some of the crops, but certainly their fruit and vegetable sector is excellent.

"The government of Taiwan would be in the same category. They’ve changed from being largely rice and other things oriented towards now much higher value specialty crops, and they export fruits, vegetables and flowers to the world, and do it profitably."

Keatinge emphasizes that it is an "absolute must" that both farms and diets have a sufficient amount of diversity in fruits and vegetables.

"In the developing world they're certainly leading towards a more western diet. That's clear and it's not good for them," he says.

"I think that for example Thailand’s current young generation has gone away from what was a pretty good diet to a pretty awful one, so I can see problems ahead there."

He says the rising middle classes in many developing countries can afford diverse diets and are willing to eat a range of different foods, but his concern is for the poorer people for whom fruit and vegetables are "something of a luxury".

"We now see a close association between poverty and obesity, because people are filling up on carbohydrate crops, and they’re becoming disease-prone," he says.

"The only way they can really cope with that is for fruit and vegetables to become sufficiently cheap so that they can afford them.

"It’s clear to us that in the developing world farmers think it's easy to grow vegetables, but we know that it's not easy to grow vegetables well and that difference is an important one."

Bitter gourd

Bitter gourd

In terms of other vegetable developments, Keatinge has an interest in the potential of bitter melons, also known as Momordica charantia, ampalaya or bitter gourd.

"I believe that there are elements in the horticultural sector like bitter melon, that has real potential for the partial alleviation of type 2 diabetes," he says.

"Essentially no one nobody else is breeding it so we’re doing that as well. People like the East-West Seed Group for example have taken our germplasm and are producing some hybrids of ampalaya now, and I believe that may continue.

"It's not going to be a huge market but it's very clear in Southeast Asia and China that things like ampalaya - which I certainly don't like - are much more popular in those sorts of cuisine than in the western cuisine. Nonetheless, if it can be proved it can be good for you and help reduce blood sugars, which all of the evidence points towards, then it would be well worth including in your diet."

He says the AVRDC has tried to collect the world germplasm for momordica.

"There are 120 or so lines of that, but in fact they all come from Asia. We’ve subsequently discovered the home of most momordicas is Africa, so we’ve now gone out to try and collect some of that germplasm.

"It is difficult and in the current climate which means that collection of new germplasm becomes very complicated legalistically. My assumption is that this will be rather a slow process."

Genetic modification

While the researcher's work is predicated on conventional breeding, he believes genetic modification needs to be more widely accepted to help overcome excessive pesticide use on farms.

"I’m in favor of genetic modification. I believe that most of the risks have been largely overstated, reverting to the case of eggplant for example in South Asia where there is a genetically modified, commercial variety available, but it hasn't received permission for release by the Indian government," he says.

"You have a situation in which farmers are spraying 100 times a season, and that means that they’re poisoning themselves and also probably poisoning the consumer as well.

"The potential risk of the BT GM eggplant is really very tiny and I believe that the status quo is not acceptable, therefore any change can only be good."

Keatinge thinks GM technology is on its way but the whole regulatory environment has been "wildly overblown".

"But as the viruses and potential pathogens continue to mutate pretty quickly, I expect we’ll be forced into a corner in which we’re going to have to use this technology to counter something serious.

"It hasn’t happened yet but it’s probably on its way."