Sophisticated new technologies – from advanced genetics to unmanned aerial vehicles – are being employed in the search for ever improved sugar beet varieties.
Back in the day, human eye and experience were key to finding new, improved varieties of sugar beet. Skilled technicians walked field trials where seed from hundreds of different crosses were grown, looking out for those plants that looked just right.
Harvest involved lifting and bagging sample after sample which went off for lengthy detailed analysis. Today, technology has an ever-increasing role – with genetic analysis enabling the likely outcome of any cross to be predicted with more certainty.
By understanding the genetic ‘fingerprint’ of a plant’s parents, it is ever easier to identify and combine key traits that are likely to result in improved new lines leading to ever better varieties in the field.
Advances in genetic science have reached a point where, should the UK government accept gene editing as an aid to breeding, it will be possible to combine desired traits with ever more accuracy and certainty.
As a company devoted to sugar beet breeding worldwide, SESVanderHave invests more than 15% of its turnover in research and development.
This means we already have a very clear understanding of the contents of our ‘genetic toolbox’; a well-stocked library of information and knowledge of how these translate into different environments around the world.
This is why genetic promise must still be field-tested locally.
To understand the way a variety responds to its environment (soil, climate, topography) is known as phenotyping. Field performance is a combination of both the phenotype and the genotype (the genetic make-up).
So field assessment is still important, but science can also play a part here to broaden, accelerate and amplify our data collection. Aerial observations by drones equipped to analyse plants using a range of spectra means each plant can be assessed, but at a far faster rate than the most skilled technician walking the rows.
What’s more, aerial technology observes and measures consistently throughout the operating period – something few humans can achieve. But data gathered must still be sense checked and the experience of field teams provides added context.
In Belgium, a project called ‘BeetPhen’ has evaluated digital field phenotyping methods in a collaboration between SESVanderHave, Vito Remote Sensing and the Walloon Agricultural Research Centre, funded by the Belgian Science Policy Office.
The initial aim is to provide plant breeders with a fast, efficient way to detect and measure disease infections with support from artificial learning and machine intelligence.
Understanding how varieties respond will be increasingly important as climate change alters the spectrum of disease that threatens beet production.
Even at harvest, technology can aid the breeder’s work. Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) is well-established in assessing grains. Now NIRs will bring benefits to trials harvesting.
NIR analysis on-board a mobile tarehouse will enable the trials teams aboard the harvester to lift, weigh and analyse the crop from each small plot for important traits such as sugar content and dry matter.
Modern communications ensure data from each plot is recorded in the laboratory before the harvester has left the field. This information joins the historic data sets from parent lines to provide enhanced assurance of how the variety will perform.
SESVanderHave UK draws on global expertise and advances in science and technology. But our goal remains to develop thoroughly tried and tested varieties to ensure they match the unique needs of Britain’s growers.
Our latest variety to be added to the BBRO Recommended List is Wren, which has emerged from more than a decade of research to identify new varieties
offering robust performance, in
terms of establishment, root yield and low bolting – whatever the season.
Sugar beet is one of the few UK crops to have shown significant increases in performance over the past decade or more. But there is much more to come as science and technology is applied with ever more sophistication to crop and seed treatment technology.
Ian Munnery is UK director for SESVanderHave.
For more details, visit www.sesvanderhave.com/uk
or call 01522 442000.