Vincent Pétiard, PhD is an ex- Nestlé, a worldwide well recognized Plant Sciences expert who specializes in plant breeding and biotechnologies and one of the first to implement plant genomics into the food industry.
We have invited Vincent to share his insights on genomics and its implementation into the food and beverages industry.
Hi Vincent, thank you very much for joining us today.
First, can you tell us the story of your path from the academic world to industry products?
I obtained my PhD in France in plant breeding and genetics. My first position was in fact in a product company where I worked as a plant scientist for a pharmaceutical company. I investigated medicinal plants for anticancer substances, with the product development led by clinical scientists. They were in the midst of working on a medicine for Hodgkin’s disease but had to limit its distribution because they could not produce enough of the chemical compound needed for the medicine. So, they turned to us, plant scientists, to try and increase the content of the targeted compound in the species. This company was eventually acquired by L’oreal and I moved to developing and breeding varieties for cosmetics and perfumes. Subsequently, Nestlé purchased L’oreal and they decided to establish a research center in plant science dedicated to the food industry to improve food crops for cosmetics, perfumes and pharmaceuticals. In the end, I spent most of my career doing breeding and plant research for Nestlé and their brands.
Acquisitions played a big role in your career. Regardless, you are a strong believer in plant improvement as a solution for some of the issues that the product companies are facing with respect to raw materials.
That’s correct and at the end of the day it was at Nestlé where I advocated for crop research and spent my time heading the plant science research center and a network of external farms. I always had to convince even the largest companies and their R&D offices that they needed to care about their raw materials by pointing out that no one else in academia and other research entities would secure raw materials for them.
Most companies usually purchase their raw materials as a commodity from growers and trade companies. Why and when should these companies become involved in breeding programs and partnerships?
Raw materials in the industry can be grouped into two categories. First, there are products that must be processed fresh, for example tomatoes for tomato paste. Here, we must become involved with the supplier’s breeding. The second category is raw materials that are not directly processed. Good examples include specialty crops such as tropical plants like coffee and cacao. We refer to them as orphan crops because the seed industry isn’t involved with them. When you compare the number of scientists working on staple crops such as corn versus those working on coffee breeding, the difference is quite large with a few thousands as compared to maybe 50 scientists working on coffee and perhaps 10 on cacao. The message I try to convey is that if your business relies on these crops, then you must secure the supply chain of the raw material. You will not produce coffee products without the coffee bean. That was a simple idea, which wasn’t always easy to sell, but fortunately I was quite successful in the three companies I worked for. They understood that raw materials were a key to protecting their business and therefore they needed to invest in their long-term security.
If orphan crops such as coffee and cacao are not being cared for by the seed industry, then this is where the food and beverage industry should step in – especially when the specific crop is at the core of their business.
Absolutely, and it is not only securing the supply but also diversifying the end products. These companies must secure their supply in volume, price, location and right timing and can use breeding as a great opportunity to differentiate their products from the start. Meaning, customizing the raw materials towards the end products and differentiating them from their competitors. The raw materials can be improved for better yields, processing and better quality end products, which is something that the seed industry can’t perform as it isn’t aware of the full processing and logistics cycle.
You are saying that it’s possible to tailor crops to fit the needs of the end products and that this affects the overall value chain and the amount of processing needed to improve the products, optimize development and reduce pricing?
Yes, and this is a perfect opportunity to create premium products because you have very specific definitions for what is needed. It’s common in herbs and spices as well as flavor and fragrances and the impact on the business was evident. For example, we’ve created a basil variety that was well designed for consumer-preferred pesto and the results were highly noticeable.
We both understand that breeding and development of end products is a long process. How do you convince companies facing the constant race of time-to-market that it is a strategic decision to start at the breeding level with the understanding that this may take several years?
When you are in the process of an innovative pipeline, the initial delivery might be lengthy, especially when there is still a need for conventional breeding and trials. However, this approach guarantees that, in the end, you will get exactly what you wanted because you targeted specific improvements. For a company with factories in a country hit with a plant disease, breeding for disease resistance varieties, even though it takes time, is worthwhile because it will obtain disease resistant plants at the end of the process. Technologies, such as genomics, shorten these long cycles and guarantee a successful outcome. However, this kind of pipeline is achieved only when there is continuity, which many companies make the mistake of breaking. Unfortunately, many public companies switch research on and off and we see this frequently with tropical crops, where the prices on commodities are initially high and there are available funds for the research. But when the price goes down, they discontinue the effort and restart only when the price is sufficiently high again. Price fluctuations and uncertainty shouldn’t influence a company’s research into their key raw materials. The industry requires continuity in research.
By mentioning genomics, you steered right into my next question: Can these global conglomerates dealing with complex processes and logistics, such as Nestlé and Unilever, integrate genomics and analytics for plant science? It seems like two different worlds.
First, genomics is not only used for plant breeding. Companies use genomics and DNA analyses for quality control of their products, which is great for branding purposes as well. Companies can brand their products in accordance with their varieties. Generally, genomics is used for breeding and guidance towards improved varieties. However, the application of quality control of a company’s own materials is extremely beneficial for consumer trust and I used this approach during my time with Nestlé.
It has been 20 years since genomics first found itself in the industry and we see major seed companies on top of the latest updates. From your experience, how well has the food and beverage industry adopted these technologies?
I don’t have the exact numbers, but I have been approached by Nestlé and other companies that seriously consider spending more on genomics (not as much as I would like them to) as a strategy for developing their raw materials. It is not surprising that companies like PepsiCo are considering genomics for oat improvement because of their Quaker oat brand, or potatoes for their Frito Lays chips, especially when they foresee shortages in crop supply. Now they have a wonderful opportunity to improve them and, as mentioned, enhance public trust in their brands. Once these companies turned to plant scientists, they added genomics as an important component of their R&D process.
It appears that big companies like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola understand the importance of genomics as they are investing in plant science research. What is your advice for companies that aren’t quite there yet? Where should they begin and how could genomics help solve some of the challenges they face?
Use of Genomics can be split into two parts, one directly involved in guiding better breeding for cost and quantity, and the second for breeding better traits to differentiate an end product, I would call this part gene discovery. For example, when we breed a crop for disease resistance, we are creating a variety that doesn’t require pesticides that are harmful to the environment, and this is something that many consumers now pay attention to and appreciate. In addition to natural breeding, new varieties can be developed using different gene editing techniques. Even though GMO is still being disputed we are starting to use gene editing technologies like CRISPR to achieve specific gene modifications (GM). The first step for GMO and gene editing is to know the gene, which you wish to modify, and this can only be revealed through genomics.
On where to begin, it is important for management to integrate genomics and plant science in accordance with the full supply chain because it will not be beneficial to create a new variety without the means to propagate and distribute it rapidly. Management must realize that there should be a virtual vertical integration and coordination within the supply chain from grower to factory. They don’t have to own the farms for securing the purchase of the raw material they produce. This was a very dominant approach during my career to show something that could be worked-in quite rapidly, such that longer, strategic projects would be better accepted. For example, in Mexico growers didn’t have robusta beans and relied on imports from other countries, but this created political issues and costs due to taxes. At Nestlé, we decided to propagate the best varieties available and distributed them to the growers. This led to an increase of 200% in yield and, after distributing 5 million trees a year Mexico became almost self-sufficient in a production of robusta beans. In this case, we created something very concrete in a short time, after which we agreed we could move ahead with breeding and genomics.
So plant genomics is one piece of a strategic plan for the security and differentiation of raw materials within the value chain with many other components. If a company does want to take advantage of genomics technology, then they should begin creating a full plan. However, in parallel, they should carry out a short project providing early initial results to guide them and help advocate towards a longer path of full technology integration.
It is important to prove to management that implementing genomics benefits new varieties and ultimately the end product. But genomics doesn’t solve everything. I recall a conversation I had 30 years ago, where I discussed coffee plants at Nestlé. A senior manager suggested creating a collection of tissue culture of the main coffee varieties because he was afraid that Nestlé would face losses in genetic diversity. This manager wasn’t a scientist but understood the need for securing the coffee tree and making sure farmers grew the best varieties for them and for the factories. We responded to his demand and collected and developed different varieties that were available around the world. Some varieties were related to seed performance while others were for factory performance, and we distributed them to the Philippines, Mexico, China and other coffee producing countries. That was the beginning of something concrete that brought real value to our growers and factories.
This sounds almost like an academic research project, but it was actually done by a commercial end-product company – that is really amazing.
In a sense you are right, but outside of plant science there are many product companies that are engaged in long-term R&D projects, especially those focused on nutrition. For example, the plant-based protein industry has been very successful and is delivering fantastic products through processing. In one particular example, there was a company that developed plant-based burgers with the right nutritional profile, right flavor, good texture and appropriate shelf-life, which the clients were very happy with. However, when asked to plan the mass production they were bewildered – where can we acquire this volume of supplies?
This is why many food technologists and food startups are challenged with scaling up.
Which makes strong collaboration between plant scientists and food technologists the key in the development process of the end product. The plant scientists need the input from the end product companies. When we were working on our tomato products for Contadina, we collaborated very closely with tomato seed companies in order to guide them in their breeding in order to achieve properties important specifically for our purposes and processes. I don’t see how a plant breeder can develop a new coffee tree for Nestlé without knowing how Nestlé processes and produces its coffee products.
Sustainability is something that is quite important to consumers and companies are responding by publicly highlighting their commitment to sustainability through documentation and reports. Is there a link between breeding and genomics and sustainability, or is this just a buzzword?
I really believe that consumer demands are intertwined with a commitment from these companies towards better sustainability. Consumers want concrete reactions to climate threats and, for a company, this can generate a positive market reaction by selling a product that complies with sustainability. People are also becoming conscious of the residue of chemical crop protectors. Thus, trying to create better disease-resistant crops is directly correlated to the application of fewer or zero chemical substances in the field. So, we realize that the ‘green movement’ is beyond being trendy and that consumers must be satisfied.
As examples, the large cacao companies such as MARS, Nestlé, and others are proud to inform consumers that they have zero children labor in the field and that they are working to create schools and social programs for the farmer communities. If you go to these regions, you will find that the schools are there and not a façade.
By involving genomics in plant breeding, we are producing better varieties that can benefit the income for all those working the fields, which is also a practical part towards better sustainability.
The benefits of using genomics goes beyond that of the end product but can trickle down and benefit growing regions in many ways. For example, today we have 12 million hectares of coffee in the world, but with improved varieties developed with the assistance of genomics, growers can double their yields and therefore liberate land for other desperately needed crops.
Can you provide one take-home message to executives dealing with the challenges facing both raw materials and planning for the best products?
For crops such as coffee and cacao, you must do it on your own. There is no one else taking care of your raw materials except for you and your competitors. That means ensuring their security and to continue improving them by investing in research. For crops that have already been greatly researched, food companies should build strong collaborations with seed companies. Every point of the supply chain must be integral in the strategic pipeline of an end product. The end product relies on improved varieties created by plant scientists and breeders, but the effort can only be successful with business insights provided to breeders and coupled with the input and guidance of consumers.
Join our next webinar, From Gene to Fork to learn from Vincent Pétiard, PhD and Guy Kol to learn more about how genomics contributes to plant-based raw materials security and influences all parts of the agricultural supply chain to help meet product requirements of the food and beverage industry: Register here