Date: Jan 10, 2013

A generation ago, the promise of breakthroughs involving gene technology, led some to believe that developing new seed varieties in the future might be a more simple process yielding quick results.  Many consumer articles spoke of the potential of a square tomato or watermelon for easy slicing or vegetables that tasted as sweet as candy but were still packed with great nutrition.

It is true that there has been in advancements in many aspects of seed breeding, but it is still a painstakingly slow process that takes many years to bring a brand new variety with superior traits to market.

In fact, Jeff Zischke, director of research for Sakata Seed America Inc., Morgan Hill, Calif., said it still takes about the same time as it did a generation ago, because it still involves the same process.  “In most crops, you still have to go from seed to seed for five or six generations to create uniform lines and then make the crosses,” he said, “and that takes the same amount of time.”

However, he said what has changed tremendously is that because of the use of molecular markers, the seed breeders can target their work much more efficiently.  He said specific traits can be transferred into existing varieties much more quickly, and the breeders have reduced the amount of unusable plants that they are looking at in the field.

In a separate interview, Gabe Gusmini, global head of Traits & Technology Vegetables Research & Development for Syngenta, made the same point.  “It depends what you are talking about when you say a ‘new variety,’” he said.  “If it is an existing variety and you want to add a specific trait to it, we can do that more quickly.”

But he agreed that if the goal was to develop a brand new variety combing many different traits, it would take about the same time as it did years ago.  “The timeline hasn’t changed that much but the variety is going to be much more complex than it once was,” he said.

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