Sustainable seed company: Agri-Obtentions

Laure Gry

,

Agronomist, Journalist

February 13, 2024

10 min

Who doesn't know Inrae, the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, created in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the food shortage was spreading across France? Over the years, INRAE, the leading agricultural research institute in Europe and the second largest in the world, has distinguished itself by obtaining renowned agricultural varieties. In 1983, a subsidiary seed company was created, Agri Obtentions, whose mission was to create and promote varietal innovations. Inrae retained its basic research activities.

All research work is oriented towards cereals and vegetables that meet the criteria of sustainable agriculture: hardy and productive, requiring few inputs and of good nutritional quality. The selection programs are long. Multilocation trials involve capturing, processing and sharing billions of data. The RnDExp software has simplified and optimized these tasks. From being useful, it has become indispensable!

Inrae's "sustainable seed company" subsidiary

Agri Obtentions has 5 experimental stations in France. The two main ones are Orsonville, in Yvelines, and Clermont-Ferrand, in Puy-de-Dôme. Trials are also conducted in Vienne and Picardie regions, on Inrae stations and in the Gers. In addition, several partnerships have been set up with public institutes and private breeders in Europe and worldwide. Collaborative projects are increasingly numerous. The species worked on are wheat, barley, triticale, durum wheat, pea, faba bean, cocksfoot, mustard... but also vegetables like carrots, garlic or shallots.

Since the beginning, Agri Obtentions' seed programs have been guided by the challenges of agro-ecology, a diversified agriculture that is more respectful of the environment. The objective is to obtain high-performance varieties that reduce or dispense with chemical inputs and meet the di-verse expectations of producers and consumers. The line has been drawn: for a sustainable agriculture and a healthy future, we must experiment!

Plant breeding is essentially based on a network of evaluation in nurseries and in the field. Before a new variety is registered in the Official Catalogue, at least ten years of experimentation are required. This starts with the choice of genitors, in a carefully preserved collection of genetic resources. Interesting plants of varied origin are crossed with the aim of combining complementary characteristics. Their descendants are observed in the field for several years, in different locations and under different growing conditions (sowing dates, treatments, irrigation...). They are noted for their agronomic performances, for their food quality, and sometimes for their aptitude for technological transformation (bread-making, biscuit-making, malting...).

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Sustainable seed testing field

For "big data" plant breeding, RnDExp® is a must

Thus, thousands of crosses are made each year at Agri Obtentions. For each trial, hundreds of characteristics must be recorded, synthesized and compared. In short, the term "big data" applies to agricultural breeding, which involves the analysis of thousands of data sets.

It is therefore not surprising that the paths of Agri Obtentions and Doriane have crossed. The story goes back to the 1980s. Louis Forêt, future General Manager of Agri Obtentions, and Frédéric Royer, co-founder and President of the software company Doriane, met at Geves (Group for study and control of seeds and varieties), of which Inrae was the main partner. Constructive exchanges were established between the two of them and several colleagues in the profession. It seems essential to build "a software that can serve the efficiency of seed research". Here is the beginning of the RnDExperience software, born from the genius of Frédéric Royer, and thanks to a close collaboration with the actors of seed research.

Agri Obtentions started using the software to manage its trials very early on. At the beginning, the software tool simplified data collection. In 2008, RnDExperience was fully applied (data collection, validation and analysis) to certain breeding programs, notably for soft wheat and triticale. Jérôme Auzanneau, Director of Research and Development at Agri Obtentions, underlines Doriane's pro-fessionalism in configuring and developing the software so that it can be perfectly adapted to the needs of the selection team.

"It's impossible to do without this software!” This is the unanimous opinion of the ten breeders and experimentation technicians who use the computer tool daily for all their activities. "The conduct of our trials is made easier, and above all, we can record everything instantly, compare the results and exchange information constantly.

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Taking notations in the app with Jérome Auzanneau

Champion of organic Wheat seeds

Let's take the example of soft wheat, a flagship species for Agri Obtentions. The company has achieved several successes and even distinguished itself in 2012 by registering the first varieties "adapted to organic farming". To be included in this very closed category (less than ten varieties with an organic label in the catalog out of a total of more than 300), the varieties must meet very strict criteria for yield, baking quality and disease resistance.

The improvement of soft wheat, a self-pollinating species, requires genealogical selection. The principle is simple, but it requires numerous crosses before finding the right parents. The selection work is done in continuous flow, several hundreds of crosses are initiated each year. The par-ents are chosen among cultivars already registered in France or abroad, or lines in the course of selection or genetic resources kept in nurseries. The challenge for the breeder is to combine the qualities of both parents in the same individual, one being able to correct the defects of the other or improve its qualities. "In the past, these crossing plans were carried out using data collect-ed in simple field notebooks or Excel tables, which were often incomplete", says Jérôme Auzanneau. Thanks to the RnDExp® software, it has become easier to characterize the genetic material from which it is derived, and the choice is thus better directed.

In cereals, the flowers being hermaphrodite, the crossing is done by castration. From the grains obtained in the first year, the seedlings are organized in nurseries and then in the open field. It is from this generation that the differences will appear between the plants, by disjunction of the characters. Then begin the detailed observations and the notations which will allow to characterize the individuals and to retain the best.This is a real painstaking task, as there are so many characteristics to note (see inset below).

It is easy to understand that the analysis and comparison of these thousands of data could not be done without the help of a software specially configured for this work.Let's not forget to underline the saving of time at the time of the analysis of the results. Between the harvest in July and the sowing to be done by September 15, "RnDExp allows us to gain in efficiency on all counts".

All this data will be restructured, normalized and centralized thanks to RnDExp. The researcher recognizes his limits: "Our eyes are not enough, it is the software after a clever mix that will tell us if a lineage reveals a good potential.”  It must still be multiplied a few years to be well fixed. Only then will it be submitted for registration. Then, for two years, it will be compared with official controls in a network of tests managed by Geves. If it passes these tests, it can be registered in the official catalog.

Agri Obtentions' successes in "special organic" wheat are Hendrix and Skerzzo (2012), Geny, Grafik and Gwastell (2018) and Gwenn (2019). These are all bread wheats. Gwastell is the first special organic " biscuit " wheat.

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Biscuit made from Gwastell, the organic wheat
For each wheat variety, hundreds of data to process

In wheat, the selection criteria are agronomic and quality. Some ratings are therefore carried out in the field, others in the laboratory. Among the main characteristics are yield, tillering and heading precocity, height, resistance to lodging, cold resistance, resistance to sprouting, protein content, specific weight (mass of a hectoliter of grain). In addition, W and P/L values, hardness and Hagberg index, bread-making test... are used to measure the baking value. And of course measuring disease resistance to the many diseases that can attack wheat: yellow or brown rust, foot rot, powdery mildew, septoria, fusarium, bunt, midge and mosaic. So many notations to record! And that on several plots, because the variety is not tested in only one place of culture. But also in several situations: the variety will be tested with or without inputs, with or without irrigation and also, over several years. "Fortunately, the RnDExp software is there” to streamline these tasks. Especially since it is not enough to collect data: It is also necessary to analyze and compare the data. Finally, the breeder will have all the keys in hand to decide whether or not to retain the variety in his selection process.”

Molecular markers, phenotyping... and RnDExp updates

In addition to pedigree selection, Agri Obtentions uses haplo-diploidization, to obtain "fixed lines" more rapidly. More recently, new methods of genome analysis have revolutionized breeding. Thanks to molecular marker technologies, it is possible to analyze hundreds of individuals for tens of thousands of molecular markers in a few hours. Further progress is to be expected with high-throughput phenotyping, which provides the means to characterize varieties more effectively using sensors. Doriane's team is committed to all these advances. "Until now, we have always been able to benefit from new versions of RnDExp, specially adapted to meet our needs.”Jérôme Auzanneau is confident and knows that Agri Obtentions has not yetdiscovered the full potential of this "powerful software".

In addition to wheat, Agri Obtentions excels in the selection of triticale. This man-made cereal is the result of a cross between Wheat (hard or soft) and Rye. Its name combines the Latin names of the wheat (Triticum) and rye (Secale). It has the advantage of combining the productivity of wheat with the hardiness inherited from rye. The crop is growing in mixed crop-livestock farms. It is a much sought-after livestock feed and is a good substitute for American soybean imports!

For this species, the glory goes to Inrae who created the first variety, Clercal, in1983. Since then, Agri Obtentions has successfully continued the research work. Ramdam and Rivolt varieties (registered in 2017) are among the most widely grown. Without question, Agri Obtentions is one of the leading triticale seed companies in France.

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Ladybird on Agri Obtentions legume variety

Improving triticale, for a sustainable agriculture

As proof that triticale is a priority, it has benefited from RnDExp since 2008, like wheat. Among the weak points of triticale to be improved are the sensitivity to lodging, germination problems and protein content. And of course, disease resistance is particularly closely monitored. It is only by exper-imenting on multi-location trials, by comparing and analyzing data with the help of RnDExp software, that we will be able to propose modern rustic and productive varieties for registration, which will be appreciated by farmers.

The triticale challenge is far from over. In addition to breeding, Agri Obtentions is working on enriching the genetic base of the species. This involves identifying new wheat and rye breeding stock, especially among the most recent varieties, in order to continue to benefit from the advances in breeding. Here again, breeders can rely on the memory of the RnDExp software. The data are collected in the database, not only for archiving, but above all for dynamic processing of the re-sults to be used.

For nearly 40 years, Agri Obtentions has been pursuing its mission of constantly improving cereals and vegetables for sustainable agriculture. Only by cultivating hardy plants with low input require-ments and natural resistance to disease will we be able to do without environmentally damaging fertilizers and pesticides. To succeed in this challenge, agronomy and genetics are not enough. We must add computer science. Yes, RnDExp has become essential in plant breeding.

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