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Collaboration explains success of Dutch vegetable breeders

Every year a lot of tomato, cucumber and pepper seeds fly abroad from Schiphol. Holland is the largest exporter of vegetable seeds. Out of the ten largest vegetable seed companies in the world, most have their main location and R&D here. According to the Chinese business expert Zhen Liu this Dutch success story is thanks to the unique fact that competing seed companies collaborate here. And what she says also helps: Wageningen UR has the largest international network of plant institutes in world at the moment.

Zhen Liu, now a consultant in Beijing, graduated from Wageningen UR on the 26th of August. To place the motives behind the success of Dutch and Chinese seed companies, she did literary research, sent around questionnaires and interviewed managers of companies and institutes. This is how she discovered why the Dutch seed industry is so successful, and what there has to be done in China to make the seed industry more innovative.

"It's difficult to organise collaboration in China," she says. "The government still organises everything there. Here in Holland the seed companies organise themselves." She uses the Wageningen biotechnology company Keygene, which now has 130 employees, as an example. A few Dutch family companies, among which Enza Zaden and Rijk Zwaan started it twenty years ago. It was going to be expensive for each partner to invest in biotechnology alone. But as shareholders they could share the costs and have access to the most advanced technologies at the same time.

She also finds a programme such as the Centre for BioSystems Genomic (CBSG) exceptional. In this programme the government, Wageningen UR and the vegetable seed and seedling companies have all contributed funds to molecular genetic research. They also determine the content together.

In China such a collaboration is still seen as impossible. When Zhen Liu wrote a story on Keygene in a Chinese professional magazine last year, she received various phone calls and messages. 'Managers of seed companies were really shocked," she said. "They were asking me: how is this possible? How can competitors start a company together?"

China has one of the longest histories of good vegetable seeds. The first Chinese agricultural guide, QiMinYAoSu, explained the necessity of seed breeding 2500 years ago. China also has the largest areal for vegetable cultivation. But at the moment the sector is fragmented. Most seed companies are small and only multiply and sell seeds. Zhen Liu concludes that out of the 8700 registered seed companies (in 2010) only 112 really breed vegetable crops and employ over 10 people. And to the most important of these Chinese companies belong the location of Dutch companies."

"The Chinese vegetable seed companies barely invest in biotechnology," says Zhen Liu. "Last month I was talking to the manager of the largest cucumber seed company and he asked: "Why should I do that? Isn't that the government's job?"

Zhen Liu also mapped out the network of the research institutes by researching the (foreign) authors and citations of articles about plant science. This is how she discovered that out off all plant institutes, Wageningen UR collaborated most abroad between 2009 and 2011, followed by Wisconsin University (US), the INRA (France) and Cornell University (US). According to Zhen Liu this large international network is a factor that improves the innovation in the Dutch vegetable seed sector.

Collaboration and specialisation is good for innovation, she concludes. "Hundreds of institutes in China are breeding tomatoes at the moment. Every region has one. But they are competing for the same government funds. You only get starting material or information if you're very good friends with your colleague. This can be changed with specialisation: institutes can focus on various tomatoes or vegetables."

Zhen Liu is now working as a business developer in the China-Wageningen UR office in Beijing. She also has her own consultancy company, PraxitheaBridge. When asked whether the Dutch seed companies can learn from China the answer was a long silence. But after some thought, she finds an answer. A few weeks after she had written her article about Keygene in the Chinese professional magazine, one of the Chinese vegetable seed companies had already made an appointment to visit Keygene, after which a contract was signed. "The Chinese are very open to new ideas and can make decisions quickly. Everything has to be discussed at length in Holland." 

Source: WUR

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