Rising to the challenges of climate change and developing varieties that require lower use of intrants: those are the stakes of varietal development, which is led in France by the National Institute of Agronomical Research, in partnership with private companies.
An interview with Rémy Cailliatte, Deputy Head of the Varietal Innovation and Diversification Department, and director of the Plant2Pro Carnot Institute.
What is the purpose of varietal development research?
“The research we are carrying out in plant biology and genetics aims to understand how plants work in order to rise to the challenges posed by two major issues: adapting to climate change and to agro-ecological and food transitions. In fact, the goal is to obtain modes of production that require fewer synthetic intrants and are capable of adapting to tomorrow’s conditions (more heat waves, hydric stress, etc.).
Where does France stand in that field?
“France is unquestionably a leader in the field of varietal development research. Our state-supported research is undeniably among the leaders in genomic approaches and developing renowned ground-breaking studies of genetic struggle (varieties’ resistance) against bio-aggressors of crops.
France’s investment in varietal development research is funded by both public and private funds (one-third/two-thirds). Unlike the image of ivory-tower researchers who are disconnected from concrete reality, INRAE works in partnership with industrials, especially seed companies, and with the sector overall.”
What is INRAE’s role?
“We are above all a research institution dedicated to acquiring new knowledge. However, if we notice that private firms are not following certain leads due to the high cost of research and the uncertainty of results, we can go all the way to varietal innovation, i.e. to developing new varieties. Concretely, INRAE creates some two dozen varieties a year, which are developed by our subsidiary, Agri Obtentions.”
Can you give us an example of varietal creation?
“Since the mid-1970s, INRAE has been working on grapevines in order to create varieties that are resistant to both downy and powdery mildew, the two diseases that are responsible for 80% of the use of plant-protection agents on grapevines in France. After having identified the genes that grant resistance to these diseases in wild American and Asian grapevines, our
researchers used hybridization followed by selection to incorporate resistance factors to those two diseases into domesticated European vines. The first resistant vines were registered in 2018, and we have observed a 90 to 95% drop in the use of those agents, as compared to national averages. We have achieved a veritable revolution with grapevines – no other country has made as much progress with this kind of approach. Similar work has been carried out on a wide range of other crops, such as common wheat, legumes or pulses, and fruit trees.”
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