A modern approach to plant R&D


QQA: Abundant’s core competence is plant breeding, and related IP development. Let’s have a closer look at what that means. Once you decide to work on a particular plant, and desirable traits for that plant, how long does it take to end up with a commercially viable product ready to offer to the market?

Graham Brown: The short answer is anywhere from five to seven years.


QQA: The first cab off that rank being cucumbers, I understand. Why did you choose to start with cucumbers?

Graham Brown: Cucumbers have a fast life cycle – only 3 to 4 months, so they are relatively quick to breed. Additionally growers plant up to 3 crops a year. That means they buy seeds throughout the year, providing suppliers like us with more even cash flows.

We were also confident we could produce heat tolerant plants relatively quickly giving us speed to market.


QQA: So heat tolerance is one of the things growers are looking for?

Graham Brown: Yes, particularly as temperature spikes become more frequent and as consumers become more picky. Just a few days of high temperatures can cause misshapen and blemished fruit. Often it’s just a superficial, visual thing with no impact on flavour. Retailers and consumers avoid them though. The price the grower receives can fall 70 to 80 percent if the fruit drops from A to C grade.


QQA: That’s massive. So heat tolerance is more important than yield?

Graham Brown: Not so much for high tech greenhouses in Northern Europe, but it’s certainly the case in southern Spain, Mexico, the middle East and much of Asia and Australia. For many vegetable crops, including cucumbers and tomatoes, breeders have already produced huge increases in yield, so that job is largely done. But boosting yield has often been at the cost of losing traits associated with robustness. Fortunately, we can go back to wild species, select traits we want, and cross-breed hybrids to bring robustness back to high yielding plants. This gives us the best of both worlds.


QQA: And you do the same sorts of things to breed resistance to disease and insects?

Graham Brown: Yes. Natural defences against insects means less use of insecticides, which lowers costs for traditional producers. It also makes them perfectly suited to organic producers. Organic farming is a relatively small food industry niche but it’s growing rapidly worldwide, so it’s attractive to a company like Abundant.

As is the shift to vegetables for healthy snacking. Consumers are increasingly seeking healthier snacks, but much of the food crop breeding effort in recent decades has been toward high yields at the expense of flavour. This inevitably makes vegetables less attractive as snack food .


QQA: Hence your miniature varieties?

Graham Brown: Exactly. Tastier, the size of a snack bar and incredibly nutritious.


QQA: So you are diversifying not only in the plants you breed, but also the types of trait you breed for and the consumption trend you take advantage of?

Graham Brown: That’s right. We’re very deliberate about the mix of projects we invest in.


QQA: So just as a professional share investor very deliberately assembles a portfolio of investments to diversify risk and gain from macro-economic trends, you assemble a portfolio of breeding projects?

Graham Brown: Yes. We manage a portfolio of plants, traits, target markets, time horizons, and consumer trends. This allows us to control risk and manage cash flows.


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