Aker: Disruptive Innovation Coming to Sugar Beets’ Rescue

Code name: Aker.

This French agronomical program dedicated to sugar beets recently came to a close after eight years of research. Its goal: accelerating variety selection in order to adapt more quickly to new conditions and stresses. The scientists’ strategy was based on taking advantage of the plant’s genetic diversity to handle a wide range of situations: hydric stress and disease, changes in plant-protection-product regulation, and more. 

The stakes are high – as the news about neonicotinoids, the insecticides accused of wiping out pollinators, and particularly bees – reminds us. Before they were banned, on September 1, 2018, sugar-beet growers coated seeds with them for protection against aphids, which carry the virus that is responsible for beet yellows virus (BYV). These yellowing diseases are devastating to the sector, because they reduce yield by up to 50%. Sugar-beet growers were in fact so seriously affected by it in 2020 that they were granted an exemption allowing them to continue to use neonicotinoids until 2023. But then what? Unless an alternative is found, the whole sector could collapse.

Predicting sugar yield

To date, Aker has not come up with a solution to the yellowing diseases. It still represents hope for finalizing a disease-resistant variety within the next few years, thanks to its predictive approach, which makes it possible to considerably reduce development time. Rather than testing new hybrids’ performances in the field after the fact – a laborious and time-consuming process – Aker researchers developed a number of tools for predicting hybrids’ performance. Those tools depend essentially on detailed observation at every stage of growth of 3,200 hybrids selected by the program for their genetic qualities. This task, known as phenotyping, consists in measuring all of the plants’ observable characteristics: developmental speed, disease resistance, final sugar yield, and more. In this way, based on certain indicators, such as total leaf area and the leaves’ chlorophyll level, it is possible to predict their sugar yield with impressive accuracy.

With the help of advanced imaging technologies, researchers in the laboratory were able to monitor and evaluate hybrids’ response to various conditions, such as how temperature affects seed germination

Innovation to foster adaptation

In this way, they were able to identify the most cold-resistant seeds. In the field, thanks to imaging technology mounted on drones and a robotized platform, Aker’s teams were able to evaluate hybrids’ resistance to Cercospora leaf-spot disease, which is caused by a fungus that affects leaves, roots, and ultimately, yield. The idea of this research is to be able to reduce the use of fungicides by selecting varieties that are naturally resistant to this pathogen. So Aker represents true disruptive innovation dedicated to sugar beet farming, one that offers the promise of quick adaptation to both environmental and regulatory change.