Seed World

How to Test Climate Resilient Varieties

Update on the European H2020 INVITE Project


Agriculture is increasingly being urged to reduce its dependency on external inputs, lower its environmental footprint and cope with more variable climatic conditions. A new EU-funded research initiative called the INnovations in plant VarIety Testing in Europe (INVITE) project aims to help the valuation and promotion of varieties that are more adapted to sustainable management practices and more resilient to climate change. Seed World Europe checked in with Francois Laurens, coordinator of the EU-H2020 INVITE project, to learn more.

INVITE aims to advance the introduction of new plant varieties that exhibit high resilience against biotic and abiotic stresses. Additionally, it seeks to enhance crops’ adaptability to sustainable management practices and to increase their resource use efficiency through improved variety testing within the EU. The project’s secondary objective is to provide stakeholders with comprehensive information on variety performance across diverse production conditions.

“By identifying crop characteristics and sustainability criteria, INVITE assists in determining the capacity of new varieties to maintain yield in variable conditions and under sustainable crop management practices. This includes reducing the use of chemical agricultural inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides, and water,” says Laurens.

The project focuses on studying 10 varying crop species (apple, lucerne, maize, oilseed rape, potato, ryegrass, soybean, sunflower, tomato, and wheat). These crops were chosen because they each play a crucial role in food production and the EU’s food consumption practices, and they represent significant breeding activity within the EU.

Led by INRAE — France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment — INVITE comprises a consortium of 29 partners and seven third parties. Initiated in July 2019, the project is scheduled for completion by the end of 2024, culminating in a final conference held in Brussels. This conference will showcase the project’s results and convey key messages derived from the research.

Francois Laurens is the coordinator of the EU-H2020 INVITE project.

Start of the INVITE project

Laurens underlines that agriculture is facing growing pressure to reduce its reliance on external inputs, minimise its environmental impact, and adapt to the challenges posed by climate change and unpredictable weather conditions. These demands form the foundation of the Farm to Fork (F2F) and Biodiversity strategies and are integral components of the European Green Deal published by the European Commission in 2019.

The F2F Strategy focuses on promoting food sustainability while providing support to farmers and producers. According to Laurens, the F2F Strategy emphasises climate-friendly approaches to production and resource transfer, with the goal of enhancing efficiency without compromising the price or quality of goods. The key objectives of the F2F Strategy include reducing the use and risk of chemical pesticides, increasing access to healthy food options, and enabling consumers to make informed choices based on health ratings and sustainable packaging.

“Variety testing, alongside the development of resistant varieties capable of withstanding biotic and abiotic stresses, shall play a crucial role in achieving these objectives,” Laurens adds.

He reiterates that this is why it is important to review the variety testing protocols under variety registration. “Research in this field can greatly benefit all stakeholders involved in variety testing, ranging from breeders and farmers to examination offices. By considering sustainability requirements in variety testing, it becomes possible to address these challenges effectively. This collaborative effort ensures that all actors involved in the agricultural sector can contribute to the achievement of these sustainability objectives.”

Overcoming the initial hesitation

Plant breeders should not worry that INVITE’s findings will result in immediate regulation or new requirements, says Laurens. It is crucial to maintain a balanced perspective, as the project’s purpose is to enhance variety testing rather than introduce immediate and sweeping transformations.

“Indeed, plant breeders initially wondered if INVITE’s results would lead to drastic changes in how their candidate varieties are evaluated. However, it is important to note that INVITE is primarily a research endeavour aimed at providing recommendations to policymakers and stakeholders regarding potential improvements in variety testing, encompassing all dimensions of sustainability. The ultimate decision to adopt such improvements lies with the European Commission and national authorities.”

Historically, breeders have been involved in significant changes to policy before its implementation. Therefore, any recommended modifications resulting from INVITE’s findings would undergo a thorough consideration process.

Notably, Euroseeds, a key stakeholder, is an active participant in the INVITE project. This involvement has allowed the project to incorporate the views of plant breeders during the early stages of the project’s research and to keep them informed about progress. This involvement in early and ongoing dialogue ensures that breeders’ voices are heard, and their expertise and insights are considered.

Perception of the INVITE project

INVITE had faced some delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors, such as the collection of historical VCU data. However, the project is now starting to yield tangible results, particularly in the area of phenotyping tools. These findings are poised to be disseminated widely among all stakeholder groups, with more updates expected to follow by early 2024.

“The progress of the research is great,” says Laurens.

“Furthermore, we are pleased to observe that the research project has facilitated the establishment of platforms and pathways between the breeding sector, examination offices, post registration organisations, agronomic advisors, and research communities,” he adds.

Through this project, it has become evident that variety testing, and particularly variety registration, is not widely understood by researchers. INVITE aims to bridge this gap, fostering collaboration and knowledge exchange between the realms of research and plant breeding.

By building these connections, INVITE contributes to a more holistic approach that integrates research findings into practical applications within plant variety testing. This collaboration between research and examination offices as well as breeding communities enhances the understanding of variety testing processes and strengthens the overall plant breeding landscape.


Setting sustainability standards

Laurens clarifies that INVITE does not aim to establish sustainability standards as part of its objectives. “The task of developing such standards lies with the European Commission or national competent authorities that will be responsible for their formulation,” he says.

Rather, INVITE’s role is limited to providing insights and suggestions to enhance sustainability within the context of variety testing and research.

First insights in defining such sustainability criteria can be found in two Commission proposals: the first being the new regulation for placing new genomic techniques (NGTs) on the market, and the second being the legal framework replacing the seed marketing directives adopted by the Commission in July 2023. It is worth noting that the Community Plant Variety Office (CPVO) may also have a significant role in the criteria development process when it occurs.

New tools to assess sustainability criteria

Laurens says preliminary findings are already being captured by the project, but results will require much additional analysis.

“Our research is currently in progress, and we are beginning to observe some promising outcomes when it relates to genotyping, phenotyping, use of models to optimise VCU networks, envirotyping, etc. However, it is essential to exercise caution in presenting these findings, as they must be analysed within the broader context of their implementation,” says Laurens.

INVITE recognises that the true value of these results lies in understanding their impact across social, environmental, and economic dimensions. Therefore, INVITE will conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis for each significant outcome. “By conducting this evaluation, we aim to provide a holistic understanding of the implications and potential benefits associated with our research,” he adds.

Harmonising DUS & VCU testing in the EU

Initial findings from the INVITE research reveal significant variations in national VCU protocols. These differences encompass various aspects, including approaches, variables assessed per plot, and scales for measuring those variables. “These findings were not surprising as it is known among breeders that such differences across Member States occur. However, our ongoing work involves reflecting upon these disparities to determine the extent of harmonisation required within VCU,” explains Laurens.

In the case of DUS testing, a substantial level of harmonisation has already been accomplished through the dedicated efforts of the CPVO over the past two decades.

To address that objective of possible harmonisation, INVITE has formed a dedicated focus group comprised of researchers, plant breeders, and representatives from examination offices. This collaborative platform serves as a forum for in-depth discussions and reflections on the specific requirements and challenges related to harmonisation. Through these constructive discussions within the focus group, INVITE aims to generate valuable input and recommendations for addressing the harmonisation requirements in the field of variety testing for variety registration. First results will be discussed in early 2024.


 Benefits of the INVITE project

Laurens explains that it is possible that various national decisions may be different. One Member State could opt for a certain improvement while another might implement a different innovation. Therefore, benefits will be country-specific.

For example, INVITE has identified a large number of tools which are currently being tested by several examination offices. Such testing has the objective to assess the benefits of the phenotyping tool as well as to identify the constraints of implementation. To date, most of these tools are intended to improve efficiency of the DUS trials.

Laurens adds that the results of INVITE are very promising in terms of phenotyping tools to be used to score a given variable or several variables at the same time.

Remaining challenges

INVITE’s funding and research schedule have recently been extended through to the end of 2024, allowing the project to continue for approximately 18 more months. During this period, the project will have to overcome two major challenges.

The first challenge involves completing all the research activities that were initially planned. While a significant amount of data has been collected and compiled to date, analysis is still ongoing. Each work package within the project is diligently working on implementing and finalising the remaining research tasks.

The second challenge lies in translating the research results into concrete and meaningful key messages that can effectively target each stakeholder group and various policymakers. To address this challenge, INVITE has established five focus groups, following the same mechanisms as the harmonisation focus group described earlier. “These focus groups play a crucial role in shaping and refining the project’s key messages,” says Laurens. The collaborative nature of these discussions fosters a comprehensive understanding of the research findings and ensures effective communication to drive positive change in the field. Their output will serve as a foundation for promoting, disseminating, and communicating the research findings to a wide range of stakeholders.

The recent discussions within the consortium have highlighted the necessity of these focus groups to ensure the optimal uptake of the project outcomes and facilitate significant advancements in plant variety testing.