Barley is one of the plants discussed within the Public Private Partnership for Pre-breeding.
At a conference hall in Malmö, the participants in the PPP-project “Barley III” discuss lines originating from MAGIC populations, Elisa tests for toxin form plant pathogens and the importance of correlation between genetic markers and disease resistance. For the uninitiated spectator, it might be difficult to understand what the researchers and plant breeders say, but the collaboration between public and private actors through PPP is unique and crucial to secure the Nordic development of agricultural crops. Apart from Barley III, there are three different PPP-projects focusing on pre-breeding – the stage before the actual breeding work, where crops for example are screened for disease resistance genes. The work done here can lead new varieties with better properties concerning disease resistance, earliness, quality and yield compared to the currently marketed varieties.
Lene Krusell is a plant breeder at the Danish company Sejet. She is one of the participants in Barley III and is very content with the work done within the PPP-project.
“It’s been very rewarding for our company. We are small in the breeding business and pre-breeding require a lot of resources. Through this cooperation, we can take advantage of the fact that different Nordic regions have different pathogens. By sharing the knowledge, we can identify new resistance genes in the plants. In the PPP-project, one plus one does not equal two but rather three or five. All of us benefit from it, Lene Krusell says.
Ahmed Jahoor, Head of Plant Breeding and Research at Nordic Seed and Project Leader for Barley III, agrees:
“This cooperation is a Nordic symbiosis. In Denmark for example, we don’t have the pathogen Fusarium, but it is a problem in Norway. However, we do have Mildew, which is less of a problem in other countries. We all want to market varieties that are resistant to both these pathogens and if we work together, we can succeed with that”, he says.
Through the last decades, plant breeding, like many other branches in the society, has often seen small businesses been incorporated or ousted by larger, multinational corporations. Today, only a few Nordic companies are still in the business of plant breeding. This might pose a risk to our agricultural development.
“Companies as Syngenta, KWS and Limagrain naturally focus on markets where they can sell the most of their products. The more limited market of Nordic agriculture is not part of their scheme. That means that the Nordic countries become a blind spot in developing crops which can handle the climate change effects and new pathogens that will inevitably come”, Annette Hägnefelt, PPP-secretary at NordGen says.
The idea that the Nordic countries ought to cooperate on pre-breeding in order to compete with the multinational corporations arose in 2007. At that time, Anders Nilsson who has many years of experience from the private plant breeding industry, met with professor Roland von Bothmer. They saw the somber development with so many plant breeders going out of business, at the same time as the public-financed research declined due to the fact that the large companies had resources to do their own research.
“Anders and Roland’s work led to the first period of PPP commencing in 2011. Today, we have just entered our third period with PPP. We hope that the collaboration can be a long-term and natural partnership for breeders and researchers working with pre-breeding. It actually needs to be long-term as it takes 10-15 years to develop a new variety”, says Annette Hägnefelt.
Back in the conference hall in Malmö, the participants in Barley III talk openly to each other. Many of the companies represented here are competing on the market against each other, but in this room, no competition is needed. It’s apparent that all the participants know each other well and are enjoying themselves as they discuss advanced diagrams describing different screening results from the fields. And the collaboration isn’t only beneficial for the companies, the public sector also finds it very useful.
“When we meet, anyone can say anything. It’s an atmosphere developed through the years as we’ve gotten to know each other. For me, personally, it’s very rewarding to see my research coming to use in the real world. Through this project, we researchers can also keep up to date on which issues that need more investigation. We always need to prioritize what to focus our research on. But by talking to the breeders we can choose topics that are needed and important” says Marja Jalli, Senior Scientist at Luke, the Natural Resource Institute of Finland.
The different projects that are financed through PPP get half of their funds from the Nordic countries. The other half comes from the participating companies. Today, four different PPP-projects are active; PPP Barley, PPP Fruits (for apple and strawberry), PPP Ryegrass and 6P, focusing on the phenotyping development of plant breeding, that is visual inspection of the fields with drones.