Seed World

Big Data Will Drive Genetic Diversity

Gro Alliance

A third-generation seedsman, Jim Schweigert grew up in the family seed business and was exposed to industry issues at an early age. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in public relations from the University of Minnesota and worked for corporate public relations firms in Minneapolis, Chicago and Atlanta before joining the family business full time in 2003. He has since been active in the American Seed Trade Association, the Independent Professional Seed Association and earned his master’s in seed technology and business from Iowa State University. As president, Schweigert manages client contracts and crop planning, as well as business development and new market opportunities. His unique background and experience make him one of the seed industry’s leaders in innovation. As such, he was honored as Seed World’s 2009 Future Giant and currently serves as chair of the board of directors for Seed Programs International.

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It continues to be a headline in the news: Genetic diversity of our key food crops is dwindling. Historically, this might have been the case, but it’s changing, and “big data” is helping to drive it.
Despite what many people might think, big data and precision agriculture are not only creating opportunities for multinational companies, but also smaller, independent breeders. With the recent advancements in genomics (knowledge and techniques), plant breeding is becoming less expensive and more accessible. Because the initial investment for a breeding effort is now less, the size of the microclimate or end use market being targeted doesn’t need to be as large. This means that it is now economically feasible to breed for specific soil types in specific counties, whereas before, one needed to paint with a much broader brush.
In our custom breeding and nursery services business, we are seeing this change take place. Smaller organizations are able to used advanced analytics to precisely measure product performance in specific soil conditions and maximize yield for farmers in that area. Additionally, companies are able to breed for specific oil content, nutritional composition or grain color that meet the needs of smaller industrial or consumer markets.
The excitement and technical sophistication of these efforts is high. However, some organizations lack a robust product development and commercial deployment plan. This is where we recommend a start-up or smaller breeding organization seek support from a company with custom breeding and nursery service expertise.
In our company, we offer a range of solutions that provide risk mitigation and cost savings to our clients. The first solution is having multiple locations. This is important for all areas of seed production and hybrid testing, but is critical for a new breeding effort. If all the breeding work is being done at one location, the entire program is one hail storm from being over. Second, we offer drip or pivot irrigation at all our nursery service locations. While water isn’t the only stressor, it might be the most important to protect against. Finally, we can provide a road map for turning the breeding vision into reality. We know the steps, how to take them and how to most efficiently use resources, which is especially important in the early stages.
Large companies will likely continue to develop dominant genetics in the more homogenous, large acreage areas, but precision breeding efforts from smaller, more focused companies will continue to gain traction in an increasingly complex and decentralized agricultural landscape.