Talking to Hans van den Heuvel, Managing Director R&D at Dümmen Orange, you can feel he’s an engaged and committed researcher. During our conversation, he clearly expresses his views of the global flower breeding market. “The floricultural breeding sector is currently at the point where vegetable breeders were around the year 2000. There’s still a lot of value to be added to seeds, cuttings and other propagation materials.” Hans van den Heuvel is one of the keynote speakers at the International Floriculture Forum that will take place in Vijfhuizen on the 6th of November.
By Hans Neefjes
Hans van den Heuvel says it unexpectedly, without batting an eyelid, and definitely not out of arrogance: “Dümmen Orange plays a leading role in the floricultural breeding sector. For certain aspects, other breeders can keep up with us, or even surpass us, but nobody can compete with us in the full width of our product range. Don’t forget that we are working on 90 different ornamental plants and for more than ten of those, there’s already a strong focus on Trait & Technology. We’re really making progress with regards to adding value to the propagation materials for those crops now.”
Focus on Trait & Technology. What do you mean exactly?
“It means that for those crops, we explicitly define which new properties we must and can add to our seeds, bulbs, tubers, cuttings or tissue culture material. We subsequently market that added value. It’s an approach that originates from field crop breeding. Propagation materials improved and led to more yield or less loss, thanks to resistances. Eventually, the value of the propagation materials increased. The global turnover of seeds for field and vegetable crops tripled in a 20-year period, from 14 billion dollars to more than 40 billion. The floricultural industry is only at the beginning of this process. There’s still a lot of value to be added to propagation materials.”
Are you saying that ornamental value alone isn’t sufficient?
“The ornamental value of cultivars will always be the basis, together with the growing properties. We must continue to breed and select on those aspects. But there are more properties you can add to a cultivar. Properties that will help reduce the costs for growers or for other parties in the chain. Or properties that can lower the risks of loss, due to pests and diseases.”
Is it possible to achieve this through conventional breeding methods?
“In theory yes, but it’s better and faster to apply new breeding techniques. Since 2011, Dümmen Orange has been shareholder in Genetwister, a company in Wageningen that’s specialised in modern breeding techniques and biotechnology. This has enabled us to build up a very good platform for our R&D department over the past couple of years. Our breeders and researchers are learning a lot from the knowledge and possibilities of that platform. They’re developing much faster, thanks to our collaboration with Genetwister.”
Can you find enough breeders and researchers for your company?
“That’s a challenge and that’s why we started the Breeding Academy in 2016. Through this programme, we link ambitious young people to experienced breeders in a master-apprentice style relationship. It often concerns international students, who are doing a master’s degree in Life Sciences or something similar at Wageningen University. The first ‘apprentice’ became one of our rose breeders half a year ago. Dümmen Orange currently employs 30 breeders and since 2016, we’ve had 10 in-house researchers. Our new Breeding Technology Centre, which is currently being built in De Lier, will allow us to bring all our technology related facilities together in one place. It will make the breeding and selection processes even faster than before.”
Collaborations like Breeding Accel and GenNovation show that your colleagues aren’t leaning back either. Is that a positive sign?
“Yes, those collaborations and consolidations are good for the sector. They enhance the infrastructure and heighten the interest in research and breeding programmes. They provide a boost for training and education in the field. Even if the Netherlands already has a good infrastructure and a lot of specific R&D knowledge. It’s not without reason that out of all our 175 FTE R&D staff, 100 are based in the Netherlands. The Dutch government also stimulates innovation through subsidies and a favourable tax climate.”
How far along is the floricultural breeding sector at the moment?
“Our sector is currently at the point where vegetable breeders were around the year 2000. In the vegetable cultivation sector, consolidation began in the nineties. There are 6 or 7 large breeders left worldwide nowadays. They spend roughly 20% of their turnover on R&D. The total turnover for vegetable seeds is 6 billion euros, and only 20 crops account for 90% of that amount. As for the floricultural industry, we’re talking about 2 to 2.5 billion euros worth of propagation materials, spread across hundreds of different crops. Roughly 7% of this turnover is spent on R&D. There are around 150 breeding/propagation companies in the Netherlands. Consolidation has only just started in our sector. You need a certain size company if you want to make progress, especially if you want to have a broad product range.”
Are the vegetable and floricultural breeding sectors similar?
“By and large, yes of course, although most ornamental plants are genetically more complex. But thanks to GeneTwister, we’ve got a platform to unravel the genetics and collect data at DNA level and link those to external properties. So-called markers are very important. Things can develop rapidly in floriculture now. Many general breeding techniques have really improved during the past couple of years, and the costs have gone down. You’re almost talking about the difference between not having a phone and being able to choose between dozens of different bundles for your phone.”
Is there sufficient genetics available for real improvements?
“Yes, I think so. Both in the existing assortment and in old, non-commercial sources. For tulips for example, we’re looking at Fusarium resistance in primeval varieties. With the help of modern techniques, we can screen modern cultivars too, and see if the responsible genes are there. Marker technology can subsequently help us keep those genes clustered during the breeding process. In 2015, as part of our project Red Avalanche+, we started pairing a nice red colour from a donor rose to the genes responsible for the favourable cultivation properties of Avalanche+. An initial spin-off from that project is the Ivy+ cultivar. It isn’t red yet, but with the colour cerise, it’s a step in the right direction.”
You’re also embarking on propagation activities. Why?
“It’s a way to offer added value to our customers. In addition to the Quickplug, we introduced the Basewell concept, which makes use of rooted cuttings to improve the cultivation process. With regards to tulip, we’ve been working together with IribovSBW on the development of a new method that can speed up the propagation of tulip bulbs. It’s an important development, as it will allow us to make faster progress with the breeding and selection of the crop.”
About Hans van den Heuvel
Hans van den Heuvel (56) has been working as Managing Director R&D with Dümmen Orange since the 1st of January 2015. The R&D group consists of 175 FTE worldwide, including 30 breeders and 12 researchers.
Hans van den Heuvel was born and raised in the Dutch town of Aarle-Rixtel, where his parents had a mixed-farming business. His brother took over the horticultural company.
Van den Heuvel studied plant disease science and agricultural economics at the University of Wageningen. He graduated in 1986. In 1991, he got his PhD within the department of plant virology. He worked at Wageningen University as a researcher and group leader for ten years.
Van den Heuvel spent most of his time there in what’s now called the PRI (Plant Research International) research unit. Between 2001 and 2009, he was Head Research at vegetable breeding company De Ruiter Seeds, which was taken over by Monsanto in 2008. From 2009 until 2015, Van den Heuvel was director R&D with Limagrain Vegetable Seeds, where he was involved in the integration of vegetable breeders Hazera Genetics and Nickerson Zwaan.
Hans van den Heuvel is one of the keynote speakers at the International Floriculture Forum that will take place in Vijfhuizen on the 6th of November.
Registration for the Forum is still open and free of charge. But due to limited capacity and high-level of interest from the international flower industry, it will be open to qualified participants only and subject to admittance confirmation.
Register here: www.floriforum.com