Sunday, November 23, 2014


The recent American Seed Trade Association Management Academy held at Purdue University gave 52 seed professionals the focus and skills needed to help them excel in the industry.

Twenty minutes to put down a framework of the world. That was Otto Doering’s task.

“I would prefer to take eight days to do this with you, but we’ll do it in 20 minutes,” he joked, as he situated himself at the front of the tiered classroom. It was packed to capacity with 52 seed industry professionals who traveled from across the nation and the world to experience the American Seed Trade Association Management Academy at Purdue University during the first week of March, 2011.

The professor of agricultural economics fired off his first question, and then proceeded to cover topics that business literature calls “wicked problems,” such as feeding the world, running out of resources, the division between the haves and the have-nots, and the human capacity to solve global challenges—all in less than half an hour.

“We’re dealing with a whole series of wicked problems, and they’re frustrating,” he said, with a serious expression and eyes darting around the room. “They’re hard to define. They’re not linear. There’s no end game. You’re not necessarily going to solve these problems, but if you do the right things, you might be able to make them better over time.”

Doering’s 20 minutes ran out, but he was far from finished. Three more Purdue agricultural economists joined him, and the four devoted the next 90 minutes to discussing some of the tough challenges affecting the seed industry. Wally Tyner offered his perspective from an energy standpoint; Phil Abbott discussed trade-specific issues; Tom Hertel focused on short- and long-run drivers, such as policy and growth rates; and Doering shared his expertise on the economic implications of climate change.

From biofuels and resource constraints, to China and commodity prices, the panelists fielded tough questions from the facilitators—professors Allan Gray and Mike Boehlje—and the audience. Somewhere along the way, the conversation transitioned from challenges to opportunities.

“It’s not so much about the physical resources in the future; it’s about ideas and technology and about having a global vision and serving the global market,” Hertel explained. “We’re looking at a world that is more and more integrated, and there are phenomenal opportunities for someone who can meet the needs of nine billion people. Even if it’s just a little niche, there are very handsome returns on that.”

Doering suggested that developing products more resilient to changes in climate, politics and price variability will become more important than it has been in the last two generations. Tyner agreed, and added that finding niche solutions for specific environments, situations or markets will also present future opportunities. However, as Abbott pointed out, seed companies have to “incorporate new technologies that are now profitable under a different set of relative prices.”

Joe Nail, risk mitigation manager for Monsanto, knows that he won’t have another experience quite like that morning at the academy again in his lifetime.

“We had four leading economists willing to share openly what was on their minds, and willing to answer questions. You don’t get many opportunities like that,” he said. “It was pretty remarkable to be a part of it.”

Nail noticed a common theme surfaced during the panel discussion—the global environment is changing, and the seed industry needs to be ready to adapt to those changes. To better prepare themselves to lead seed companies through future changes, Nail and the other attendees devoted their remaining time in West Lafayette, Ind., to learning management techniques and strategies. They participated in sessions focused on creating and communicating value through sales and marketing efforts, the fundamentals of financial management and factors that impact a company’s profitability, effective supply chain management, leading change within an organization and positioning a company using business strategy tools. To reinforce concepts and tools, they gathered in small breakout groups to solve problems, gaining exposure to different business areas and industry sectors along the way.

“Now I understand how the decisions I make, and actions I take in my department, impact others in the company and the organization as a whole,” said Lesley Amos, sales associate for Beck’s Hybrids in Atlanta, Ind. “This program provides you with tools that you can take back to your work environment and apply regularly.”

As vice president of sales and marketing for Agdia Inc., which provides services to the seed industry, John Spratlin built new business relationships and friendships during the five-day program.

“The academy is not only applicable on the job, but it is also a great networking opportunity,” Spratlin said. “It’s helpful to get acquainted with those who are directly involved in the industry, and I now know how the salespeople sell, as well as what is important to them with regard to pricing, forecasting and inventory control.”

Nail, Amos and Spratlin have joined the approximately 1,150 participants, representing more than 350 firms worldwide, who have experienced the ASTA Management Academy. Offered through a partnership between ASTA and Purdue’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business, the academy will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2012. Each academy is different, yet one feature always remains—the participants’ intense focus on making themselves stronger managers, and their desire to improve the seed industry over time. Megan Sheridan and Julie Douglas

Editor’s Note: Megan Sheridan is the marketing manager at the Center for Food and Agricultural Business at Purdue University. Julie Douglas is the director of communications at the American Seed Trade Association.


2011 has been declared the Year of the Tomato by The National Garden Bureau and for good reason—recent developments in tomato breeding are putting this valuable fruit into the spotlight.

Tomatoes have attracted the limelight recently with the release of new varieties with improved agronomic, functional and nutritional characteristics. Recent developments in tomato breeding offer prolonged shelf life, increased disease resistance and improved marketability of this fruit.

Nunhem’s, a subsidiary of Bayer Crop Science, has developed the world’s first non-leaking tomato, Nunhems’ Intense, which can be sliced or diced without losing its shape. The company has also bred a tomato variety for India, Laxmi, which can tolerate higher temperatures during growth and offers improved virus resistance and increased productivity.

Professor John Scott of the University of Florida has developed a vine-ripened tomato variety called Tasti-Lee, which has a deeper red color, improved flavor and more antioxidants than other varieties due to its increased lycopene content. The variety is currently being launched into the marketplace by Bejo Seeds Inc.

Avtar Handa, a professor of horticulture at Purdue University, has produced a transgenic tomato that stays fresh longer with the addition of a yeast gene that increases the production of a compound called spermidine that slows aging and delays microbial delay.

Breeding Tactics

There are many ongoing tomato breeding research programs and they all have different methods and aims and are driven by different factors.tomatoes01

Some research employs the use of biotechnology and genetic modification to identify the various genes responsible for different functionalities within different varieties of tomato plants, and develop DNA markers for those genes, so that desirable characteristics can be incorporated into breeding programs for new, improved varieties.

Not all breeding programs employ the same techniques. HeinzSeed, the tomato breeding division of the H. J. Heinz Company L.P., is producing hybrid varieties through conventional plant breeding techniques for a large sector of the tomato processing industry.

Agronomic issues like yield and pest and disease resistance are huge factors driving a lot of research, particularly in the case of the tomato seed industry. “By and large, yield still drives tomato seed sales,” says John Stommel, the vegetable and fruit research leader at the USDA’s laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.

Another important factor is field storage capacity which is crucial to make sure only ripe, sound fruit reaches the factory. “The quality of the fruit coming in is important,” says Rich Ozminkowski, manager of agricultural research for HeinzSeed. “A trait that we include in many of our varieties is extended field storage, which allows the first ripe fruit to stay in good condition while the grower awaits the later fruit to mature.”

For tomato growers it comes down to simple economics, says Stommel, with yield issues driving research. “As long as we have fungicides and insecticides and pesticides to deal with those problems [research] will continue to be yield driven,” he says. “But if we can develop the complete package; if we had a high-yielding tomato with these other improved attributes as well, it would be a winner.”

Research Goals

Commercial factors such as shelf life, processing attributes, size and uniformity of appearance are important to both the processing and fresh tomato industries and also drive research into improving these qualities.

Stommel, who primarily conducts research aimed at the processing industry, is investigating the color and texture (including firmness) of tomatoes. “We are beginning to look at the genetics of pigments in different parts of the tomato fruit,” he says. “The work we have done to date clearly shows that there is independent genetic control for color in different tissue types. It’s a finer approach to optimizing color.”

Trait qualities like color uniformity and firmness have an impact upon the quality and marketability of tomatoes in both the processing and fresh tomato sectors. But, although many of these characteristics have been successfully bred into modern tomato varieties, this has sometimes been at the expense of other valuable traits. “During breeding, we have bred for longer shelf life but have lost a lot of other good characteristics like flavor and some of the nutrients,” says Handa.

It’s difficult to maintain a high quality in fruit and vegetable crops under current production systems, explains Stommel. “Either the system has to change or we need to develop a tomato which will deliver better quality under that type of production system,” he adds.

tomatoes02Increasingly, though, health-conscious consumers are demanding that these important characteristics be returned to the foods they eat. “A lot of research is now looking at the genes that control the flavor and nutritional qualities of fruits,” says Handa. “The industry is starting to add those components back in, but also with an enhanced shelf life.”

Scott’s breeding program has successfully combined the different factors of commercial production, agronomy and consumer demands. Tasti-Lee is a high-quality tomato cultivar that he hopes will be a good fit for consumers willing to pay a little more for better taste and nutrition, while earning a premium price for growers, who will pay increased labor costs to harvest this vine-ripened variety.

Emphasis on Field-Grown Sector

But a much larger project currently underway as part of Scott’s breeding program recognizes that a wider strategy will be necessary in the future to help the field-grown tomato industry in Florida and other growing regions of North America compete in a market environment increasingly dominated by greenhouse-grown produce and cheaper imports from countries with lower production costs like Mexico.

Scott and his team are developing fresh market varieties which should be available in a couple of years. These new varieties have concentrated fruit set that requires no staking, are jointless (meaning they can be picked free of stems) and can be machine-harvested similar to processing tomatoes, but harvested at the mature green stage of development. The scenario Scott hopes to offer growers is the ability to spread their risk by combining the two varieties; so they can concentrate labor on a higher value crop like Tasti-Lee which can absorb the additional expense, and also reduce costs on the machine-harvested varieties, harvested mature green for lower priced markets.

Looking Ahead

Future tomato breeding research will continue to be driven by some of the same factors that drive it now but, as global weather patterns change, their impact upon growing conditions could require greater adaptability in varieties.

“In our programs we are trying to choose varieties that are the most adaptable across the broadest range of environments and conditions,” says Ozminkowski.

HeinzSeed has been involved in global research that has successfully identified and developed tomato varieties that are well adapted to local soil and climate conditions in countries like China, Egypt and the Ukraine.

There will also be continued emphasis on better pest and disease resistance, says Stommel. Besides trying to develop resistance to familiar diseases, researchers are increasingly focusing on new pathogens like the geminivirus, a disease now limited to tropical regions, but, if spread to other growing regions, could be devastating.

Scott’s program is working on a transgenic tomato variety that will offer protection from two of the most devastating tomato diseases for his growers: tomato yellow leaf curl virus and bacterial spot.

“A gene in pepper called BS2 has been inserted into tomatoes by genetic transformation,” says Scott. “It’s a gene that works very well against the strains of bacteria that cause bacterial spot in Florida and provides a really good level of resistance which can be used to develop resistant hybrids. In the meantime, we are putting TYLCV resistance, which we have already developed, into the hybrids. So we will eventually have a tomato with resistance to TYLCV through conventional breeding, and bacterial spot through genetic transformation, and growers will have one variety that will not be susceptible to the two most serious diseases that affect their production.”

Ultimately the challenge for the entire perishable food industry is to continue to offer increasing volumes of attractive, flavorful, healthy food at prices that people can afford, while maintaining a viable and sustainable economic return for each level of the industry from the grower through to the retailer.

Consumer is Key

One of the keys to doing this, says Handa, is using technology like genetic modification to allow perishable fruits like tomatoes to be marketed for a longer period of time.

“If you can enhance the ability to store fruit for a longer time, that gives the horticulture industry advantages like cheaper transportation costs,” says Handa. “And if you enhance shelf life, you also provide a higher quality product that is healthier and gives higher returns.”

Consumers expect consistent high quality, good value and safety from the foods they consume, things the tomato industry is striving to deliver.

“As a company that is very close to its consumers, it’s important that we take their needs and expectations into account and that our varieties reflect them,” says Ozminkowski. “Traceability is very important. One of the benefits for our company is that we control our supply chain and so we can trace the seed right through to the bottle and even back to the breeding records.”

As new tomato varieties continue to hit the market offering improved shelf life, flavor, nutrition and other attributes, the consumer is the one who will ultimately decide the success of those varieties by accepting transgenic technology and employing their taste buds and wallets. Angela Lovell


Genetically modified fruits and vegetables are safe and nutritious, but consumer acceptance for GM produce continues to be slow in coming.

Genetically modified foods have been present in our food supply for many years. Some healthy GM food products have been developed and made their way onto grocers’ shelves without much protest. However, other products have provoked much consumer resistance, with the term “frankenfoods” often used as a negative connotation. Experts believe this resistance is due to the public’s lack of understanding of what GM really is.

One example of a GM fruit that has been readily accepted by consumers is papaya. According to John Schoenecker of Harris Moran Seed Company, a GM variety has saved the Hawaiian papaya crop. The fruit was being destroyed by papaya ringspot virus which resisted all attempts to control it, but researchers at the University of Hawaii were able to use genetic modification to breed a papaya variety resistant to the virus.off_shelf

“Consumers may not know about the GM papaya because there is no difference between it and non-GM varieties,” says Schoenecker. “Since it is virtually the same, there is no need to label it as genetically modified.” The first virus resistant papayas were commercially grown in Hawaii in the late 1990s, and transgenic papayas now make up 75 percent of the total Hawaiian papaya crop.

Consumer Perception

Biotechnology can be used to solve many of the world’s food problems. However the general perception has always been that consumers do not want GM fruits and vegetables. But that could be changing as these products begin to have more benefits for consumers and the environment.

“We don’t hear a lot from consumers in the United States regarding GM foods,” comments Elizabeth Pivonka of the Produce for Better Health Foundation. “We don’t get any questions about GM in the ‘ask the expert’ section of our website. Since we have an average of 70,000 unique monthly visitors, plenty of consumers have the opportunity to ask questions or express concerns if they had them.”

Some of the anti-GM feeling seems to stem from consumers in Asian and European countries which, for the most part, do not allow any GM foods to enter their markets. GM crops are hardly grown in many European countries, and are only used as animal feed rather than food for human consumption. The question by those in the industry becomes: “Is the GM papaya less safe than a steak from an animal raised on Bt corn?”

“It seems the resistance to GM food comes from a minority that has more power than the majority,” comments Ko Remijnse of Nunhems, a vegetable seed company based in the Netherlands. “However, studies have shown that the number of groups against GM declines each year.”

off_shelf02Surprisingly, there is also consumer resistance in countries where one would expect acceptance to be easy, Remijnse says. As an example, India, with a large population that could benefit from GM fruits and vegetables, is slow to accept the potential benefits that GM foods can provide. This was proven last spring by the country’s ruling to block the release of a GM version of eggplant. This eggplant variety was slated to be the first GM food introduced into India, in hopes of stabilizing food prices and mitigating some of the effects of climate change on Indian food crop yields.

At the time of the announcement, India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said there was not enough public trust to support the introduction of such crops into India’s food supply until more research was done to remove all doubts that GM foods were safe for consumption. “This is bad for the country’s agricultural and biotechnology future. Our scientists have lost their credibility, companies will be unwilling to invest more money, and it will take us a long time to pick up the pieces again,” said C. Kameshwar Rao, an official at the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, a GM advocacy institute.

Benefits Could Turn the Tables

However, just as most North American farmers accept GM crops, so do farmers in India. “Farmers in India will buy Bt cotton even though the seed is more expensive because it comes with less problems,” Schoenecker comments. That may be exactly what finally tips the scales in favor of GM foods—the knowledge that less spraying will be needed, less fossil fuel will be consumed if sprays aren’t applied and less harm will occur to the environment and beneficial insects and plants.

“It’s a matter of time, and the world will accept GM fruits and vegetables,” Remijnse continues. “We have been growing GM foods for 25 years and I am sure in another 25 years it will be totally accepted. In those first 25 years there have been no problems with GM, so is that not proof of its safety?”

In the meantime, however, Nunhems is hesitant to pursue GM seed development because of the cost of registering a GM-event and the lack of return on investment should consumers refuse to accept the resulting vegetable crop. Remijnse says it costs $10 to $15 million to register a GM-trait before introduction to market and, with the current small and fragmented vegetable markets, that is too costly.

“GM is an easy topic to cause fear in people,” comments Schoenecker. “It raises questions about playing with nature and yet billions and billions of food servings containing GM products are consumed in the United States each year without any documented case of problems attributed to GM.” He says negative public perception has been driven by lobby groups and bad publicity. His company, which breeds vegetable varieties designed to boost yield, reduce chemical inputs, and increase freshness, flavor and quality, has also put its GM breeding programs on hold pending a change in consumer attitude and “a path to market without as many bumps in it.”

Robert Johnston of Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine believes the “American public is neutral about science and doesn’t really have a strong position one way or another.” This neutrality applies to genetic modification when it produces “phantom products,” such as corn syrup in soda.

“It’s only a matter of time before GM is widely accepted,” Johnston continues. “The mass market will accept GM, but there will always be a significant group that is unlikely to accept it, such as proponents of organic practices.”

Continued Education is Key

What has to change and will it really take 25 years, as suggested by Remijnse? The consensus is that more education is needed from all levels of the agricultural industry, which is difficult because seed producers are not, by nature, professional marketers nor do they have the budgets to hire public relations firms to improve the public image of GM fruits and vegetables. That leaves groups such as the Produce for Better Health Foundation, which tries to educate in a technology-driven world.

“We monitor what is in the news in the United States about fruits and vegetables,” says Pivonka. “When there is unfavorable news, like pesticide residue concerns, we try to be a moderate, rational voice to the consumer that addresses the issue with supportive science. To date, we haven’t had to say anything about GM foods.”

Speculation that GM foods will gain acceptance if it can be proved that genetic modification offers health benefits to consumers has so far resulted in little success. The possibility of increasing nutrient content in GM foods to improve health, particularly in impoverished countries, has not yet seemed to appeal to consumers or legislators. Examples of genetic modification breakthroughs, such as inserting vitamin A in rice, have still led to roadblocks in acceptance. Instead, what may finally get GM fruits and vegetables accepted openly in the marketplace is the potential “green” aspect of these products. “Transgenic crops will become an important part of sustainable agriculture,” Schoenecker explains.

“There are negative side effects of over-using computers,” comments Remijnse, but that hasn’t prevented widespread acceptance of that technology. There does indeed seem to be a double standard when it comes to genetic modification of food crops, and until the majority of consumers learn to understand the science behind GM fruits and vegetables, these products will remain off the store shelf. Rosalie I. Tennison


The outcomes from last October’s biodiversity and biosafety meetings in Nagoya, Japan are welcomed by the international plant science industry.

Historic decisions adopted at the Nagoya Biodiversity Summit, as well as a meeting of the parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety last October in Nagoya, Japan, will improve access to genetic resources and support the international trade of seed, say industry experts. “The outcomes of the Nagoya meeting were welcomed by the plant science industry—they provide workable systems which will improve access to genetic resources and agricultural biotechnologies, while helping to ensure smooth international trade flow,” says Denise Dewar, executive director for plant biotechnology at CropLife International, a global federation representing the plant science industry.

In fact, reaction by seed industry experts to the decisions adopted at the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 10) to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the fifth meeting of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (COP-MOP 5), has been enthusiastic and encouraging.

The adoption of two international treaties at COP-MOP 5 and COP 10—the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization and the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety—is widely supported by members of the seed industry.

“For several years, the delegates to the Convention on Biological Diversity have worked tirelessly to advance science-based regulations on access and benefit sharing, and the transboundary movement of living modified organisms. The plant science industry applauds them for the successful negotiations on these two issues during the October 2010 meetings in Nagoya, Japan,” says Dewar.

The Nagoya Protocol on ABS, a legally binding international treaty, creates a framework that balances access to genetic resources on the basis of prior informed consent and mutually agreed upon terms with the fair and equitable sharing of benefits, while taking into consideration the important role of traditional knowledge.

Dewar, and the regional and national associations she represents in over 91 countries, welcomes the adoption of the Nagoya Protocol on ABS: “After seven years of negotiation, the plant science industry is pleased that the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization was adopted. The plant science industry has long supported the creation of a practical, workable and cost-effective international regime on ABS that promotes transparency and legal certainty to justify business investments at the national level. The Nagoya Protocol provides users of genetic materials with legal certainty that those resources were acquired with prior informed consent, recognizes the special nature and importance of genetic resources for food and agriculture, and their role in achieving food security worldwide, alleviating poverty and addressing climate change,” says Dewar.

seed_ind_appl02The adoption of the treaties ends the United Nations’ International Year of Biodiversity on a triumphant note, marking a promising new beginning to the preservation of biological diversity.

According to Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the CBD, the Nagoya Protocol on ABS, which is expected to enter into force by 2012, provides benefits for all participants. “By giving greater legal certainty and clarity to both users and providers of genetic resources, the Nagoya Protocol will provide an incentive for public and private sector research while ensuring that a fair and equitable share of benefits arising from this research accrues to the countries providing the genetic resources,” he says. “Hence, the protocol, by improving the current situation for all sides, and while strengthening compliance and monitoring frameworks, will promote biodiversity conservation while contributing to the long-term profitability of industries that draw upon genetic resources, such as the seed industry.”

Prior to the biodiversity summit, seed industry experts were concerned about the role existing treaties addressing access and benefit sharing would play in the proposed protocol. Of particular importance to the industry was the recognition by the proposed protocol of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, and the exemption of crops and plants already covered by the ITPGRFA.

After negotiations at COP 10, the Nagoya Protocol on ABS acknowledged the fundamental role pre-existing agreements and guidelines for access and benefit sharing, such as the ITPGRFA and the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, play in ensuring the continuous flow of genetic resources for plant breeding.

Both Dewar and Bernice Slutsky, vice president of science and international affairs for the American Seed Trade Association, welcome this outcome: “Our primary concern was that the ABS regime, under the CBD, recognizes the International Treaty and the role it plays,” says Slutsky. “The language [of the Nagoya Protocol] does this. We are pleased the role of the International Treaty was specifically included in the text. We continue to think that the International Treaty is best placed to address access and benefit sharing for agricultural products,” she says.

Dewar says the adoption of the Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress was also a hard-won victory for biodiversity and the seed industry. “The adoption of the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety establishes a workable system for response to damage to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity caused by living modified organisms.”seed_ind_appl03

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a supplementary treaty to the CBD, will establish international rules and procedures for liability and redress in case of damage to biological diversity resulting from LMOs. To date, 159 countries and the European Union have ratified the protocol.

The Supplementary Protocol was adopted a few hours before the opening of COP-MOP 5. Moving ahead, Slutsky says attention should now be placed on national governments and the implementation of the protocol. “Governments need to ratify the Supplementary Protocol—if they’re a party to the Biosafety Protocol that doesn’t automatically make them a party to the Supplementary Protocol—they have to separately ratify the Supplementary Protocol. It is important for governments, if they are considering ratification, to do an analysis of their own laws and determine how they will implement the Supplementary Protocol. Governments must have the tools at the national level in order to implement any treaty. Some governments will not have to do anything to implement once they ratify the treaty, some will have to put mechanisms in place,” she says.

Since 2008, CropLife International has been developing the framework for an objective and independent procedure for evaluating and arbitrating claims of, and remedying damage to, biological diversity. Recently, CropLife announced the implementation of The Compact, a contractual mechanism for a clearly defined, effective, and fair resource process in the event of damage to biological diversity caused by an LMO, as a complement to the Supplementary Protocol. Reception of The Compact when presented to CBD delegates at the Nagoya Biodiversity Summit was positive and supportive of the new framework developed by CropLife.

In order to secure both access to food and the preservation of biodiversity, Dewar illustrates the importance of working together in this way. “Today, more than ever, food security and biodiversity are both at risk due to the increased demands of a growing population. The plant science industry is committed to helping farmers grow abundant, safe, and nutritious food for expanding populations, while maintaining and preserving natural resources. We appreciate the hard work of the delegates to the Convention on Biological Diversity in furthering policies that support science-based regulation and innovative plant science technologies that safeguard biodiversity and agricultural production.”

The relationship between agriculture and biodiversity is a close, mutually beneficial one, and the importance of sustainable, accessible, diverse genetic resources to plant breeders cannot be understated. “Agriculture and biodiversity have a symbiotic relationship—agriculture is both reliant on a rich ecosystem, and good agricultural practices are critical in helping to protect biodiversity and limited natural resources. Plant breeders have long relied on diverse plant genetic resources to facilitate the exchange of desirable traits to improve crop yields, increased pest and virus resistance and to enhance nutritional content,” says Dewar.

Governments also agreed on a package of measures to meet the challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change at the summit in Nagoya. The Strategic Plan, also known as the Aichi Target, was adopted at the summit. The Aichi Target is a ten-year strategic plan to guide international and national efforts to save biodiversity through enhanced action to meet the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which are the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources.

The meeting also put in place a resource mobilization strategy providing a way forward to a substantial increase in current levels of official development assistance in support of biodiversity. The next meeting of the Conference of the Parties will take place in 2012 in India. Kari Belanger


A Seed Brokerage Success Story

Seed brokerage company Thurston Inc. celebrates 30 years in the business and its success stems from two simple things—great employees and great relationships with customers.

Reflecting on 30 years since the August 15, 1980 start of Thurston Inc., company president Robert Thurston modestly attributes his seed industry success to the encouragement, support and cooperation of many friends within the seed industry. “Plus the hard work and dedication of my own employees,” he adds. “That’s what really counts.”

seed_broker_success01At age 29, Thurston approached his Olivia, Minn. banker for a $60,000 loan so that he and Sue Wagemaker, his first employee, could set up shop and start a seed brokerage business. Six months later, Thurston Inc. repaid that $60,000 note and, as the saying goes, the company hasn’t looked back since. Today Thurston’s seed brokerage business provides information and seed services to nearly 200 seed companies. The company’s network of 40 professional seed growers covers Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Nebraska.

However, Thurston, now 59, didn’t start out as a rookie. He already had 11 years of seed industry experience with the Trojan Seed Company and RBA Seeds. “Those years provided a great training ground for starting my own company because I already was working with other companies on seed procurement, quality control and seed production,” he says.

He sensed in his start up year that a lot of people in the seed industry wanted him to succeed and wonders if part of that was simply the “goodness of people wanting to help this young guy get going. You are forever indebted and don’t know exactly who to say ‘thank you’ too,” says an always humble Thurston.

Did You Know? Since its start in 1980, none of the 15 employees of Thurston, Inc. have resigned to join another company, and only four have retired.

His early experience suggested the need for a brokerage firm to provide additional services beyond the traditional brokering of seeds already produced. Thus his design was to focus on people who really understood seed production and seed processing plus the genetic and agronomic characteristics of inbreds and hybrids. In essence his firm became an agronomic business rather than just a marketing function.

“We wanted to get on the front end with a service of actually producing seed for various seed companies. In essence we would take their inbreds, their hybrids and find professional seed growers across the Corn Belt to grow their products,” explains Thurston.

Information Center

Today, Thurston describes his company as an “information center” for the seed industry. He and his staff provide advice on critical issues such as:

• Seed supply and demand

• Crop reports from across the Corn Belt

• Quality issues as a result of weather and environmental challenges

• Inbred and hybrid characteristics on a regional geographic basis and sometimes even reflecting differing soil types across the Corn Belt

• And perhaps most basic to any of his customers: helping them decide what’s working and what’s not working

Like all seed industry participants, Thurston stays posted on acquisitions by the major players of the seed industry including Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont, Dow AgroSciences and BASF. However, he notes there are still approximately 200 seed corn brands in the marketplace, which also includes about 150 independent seed companies for which Thurston Inc. provides ongoing inventory management assistance.

Recognizing the American farmer as being the “bread and butter” of the seed industry, Thurston senses today’s corn grower truly appreciates the tremendous strides that have been taken in recent years both in genetics and trait technologies. He admits that today’s business landscape is getting more challenging as genetic choices become more difficult and input costs keep escalating, both for farmers and seed growers. “Things were much simpler when I started; even 10 years ago genetic choices were easier. Today every seed company has good hybrids. You just don’t see much range from the best to the worst because so often weather-related events dominate all other inputs, including genetics,” he says.

Thoroughbreds are Hot

Because of the increasingly competitive nature of farming, Thurston notes corn growers today readily jump onto the new thoroughbreds. “The American farmer recognizes the value of top genetics; and the protective value of key traits. However his bottom line is still a single factor called yield,” he says.seed_broker_success02

However, genetics can still only get you so far. His read on the 2010 crop year? Good but not great. Because seed yields generally support grain yields, he says some Illinois/Indiana seed yields produced 20 percent lower than earlier predicted. As good as things looked early on this season, Mother Nature laid a fair amount of stress on cropland across America this year, especially with record mid-September rains.

300 Bushel Corn

Admitting that he may be looking through rose-colored glasses, Thurston readily projects that the American corn farmer will reach that 300-bushel plateau even before the 2030 prediction of many seed industry professionals. He also projects that Thurston Inc. will be a major contributor to that goal and to the ongoing growth of the American seed industry and the American corn farmer.

“My goal is that Thurston Inc. becomes the ‘superstore’ of the seed industry,” says Thurston, explaining that the company has enough shelf space to service anyone. “We are a service provider so anyone wanting to bring their genetics and traits into the marketplace should use us because we have the seed grower network, we have the customer base and we have good relationships with our customers.”

Seed industry trust is how Thurston summarizes the success of his 30-year-old company, and “that happens because of great employees and great relationships with our customers.” Dick Hagen 


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