Communiqués | 27 September 2016

Stone fruit, the role of the License Manager

Varietal innovation is a strategic issue for the stone fruit sector. In this respect, France is particularly well endowed with prominent incumbents that are still very active. Not counting the outsiders, both breeders and license managers.  Decisive assets to bring into international competitions that are all the rage.

If we talk about stone fruit and of peaches and nectarines in particular, globally, two breeders have marked the last 30 years: it is the Americans Zaiger and Bradford. These breeders have found in Europe a dynamic relay notably through the Star Fruits license manager. The fact the Star Fruits is based in France in the Drôme is not by chance: this historical situation is a reflection of the interest always shown by the growers in the Rhone valley for varietal innovation to the extent that by the progress achieved in terms of color, shape and size, was and remains a strategic business strategy. It must also be emphasized that even if the system was not perfect, the concept of variety protection is effective in France, with further support from institutions guaranteeing the sanitary quality and authenticity of the plant material, the INRA and Ctifl. Under these conditions, the stone fruit breeders could entrust their varieties with real hope of return on investment, which was for example not the case in Spain, where for a long time, no system of plant variety protection protected the innovations. The situation was different in Italy where output had no bearing on varietal innovation and where producers were content with producing varieties at the best cost, a rather archaic view from this side of the Alps. But the situation has changed since and major Italian operators of stone fruit now manifest a strong interest in new varieties. As for Spain, the evolution of variety protection conditions allow breeders and vendors to launch much more calmly than before.

If the importation of American stone fruit varieties dominated throughout the 70s and 80s, the situation began to change significantly during the 90s with the emergence of French breeders, including René-Monteux Caillet , whose hybridization program started in the early 80s began to bear fruit. It now occupies a major place in the innovation landscape of peaches and nectarines. It is important to note in this overview of French procurement, the special place of the Innovation of the CEP whose vocation is to manage the creations of the INRA.

The procurement of stone fruit varieties is however, not a calm and serene activity. It is first a passionate affair which often invest heavily in a necessarily lengthy project. It is also important to emphasize that in the current conditions of remuneration of plant breeding, this activity is often deficient if it is not backed by a fruit production structure. Which could mean that it might be urgent to consider other modes of development and reward for innovation. Especially as the intensity of breeding makes the offer more bloated than ever and makes it difficult for organizations that must make choices. One could even say that it is a little “mess” and it might be wise to put some order into the process. Note also that, important as genetics is, agronomic factors of cultivation as well as harvesting and storage conditions also weigh very heavily on the final quality of the fruit offered to the consumer. A variety of good organoleptic potential that is poorly cultivated can give a mediocre result, while good farming practices can make a variety with little potential very acceptable. Which means it is not enough to have good genetics at hand: you still have to use it well. Here lies one of the most important issues in varietal development.

The creation of Star Fruits in 1968 is part of these movements. Today it federates four French nurserymen, Cros-Viguier, Nurseries Val d’Or, Toulemonde and Veauvy. Today they form the leading French Fruit Variety License Manager and lead the production of seedlings of peach / nectarine in France. They therefore enjoy exclusive European medium chilling varieties of the American license manager  Bradford and exclusivity of the fruit variety license management of Rene Caillet-Monteux. He is a member of CEP Innovation, which gives them access to INRA creations (see the Star Fruit catalog)

“The license manager could just try to plug the “holes” in the range that is currently available,” added Renaud Pierson, marketing director of Star Fruits. This was his long time major concern. “It responds to a logic of massification of production on something standard that is backed by good agricultural practices. The role of genetics is reduced and the added value it provides is obviously limited, to the extent that one is dealing with a variety pseudo-evolution. ” Thus, by the characteristics of sexual reproduction of peaches, most breeders can easily reuse pollen (for example) from the variety of a colleague, whereby the repetition of these practices leads all breeders to work on very similar genetic material, to plagiarise and produce fairly similar and substitutable varieties.

“But another logic may be considered, that of creating a true segmentation of the range by developing innovative products of high typicality. The range Nectavigne® created by René-Monteux Caillet then taken over by AC Fruit, and managed by Star Fruits is in this respect an excellent example. The breeder wanted to associate the characteristics of a modern fruit, the nectarine, with the typical characteristics of a traditional and rustic product, the vine peach. The result is thus a nectarine with blood-red flesh. Initially, three varieties were available to cover the whole of August, then the range gradually expanded over the month of July. Now the approach is also expanding to the red-fleshed vine peach (Pêchevigne®), and the two products are combined under one name, the Sanguines®.  The overall potential amounts to a few thousand tonnes, which is low on the scale of the market, but still can be strategic for the operators concerned, in need of differentiation in the face of rising competition. The Sanguines® are in fact an excellent example of tomorrow‘s stone fruit varietal license management: a strong involvement of the breeder who made the effort for a more rigorous selection process, involvement in production in coherent development and respect for rewarding agronomic practices, and an equally strong involvement of producer organizations who are decision makers of varietal choices and volumes that need to be to set up.

Such an approach could set the precedent for the development of other types of highly differentiated fruits. Its innovative character and the complexity of its management, make the implementation difficult, but not necessarily impossible. “For it is not all to create differentiation, you still have to assume it,” says Renaud Pierson who is also a stakeholder in the Pink Lady® for Star Fruits.  “It presupposes respect for good agricultural practices and a global and respectful approach, typicality conferred by genetics. All actors must be involved. A specification of production must be established, possibly with limitations on output.  When in station, a maximum period of storage should be considered. Specific marketing practices can be considered: these varieties with high sugar content may be characterized by a reduced size: it is therefore important to rethink the valuation of small caliber, or even that of consumer sales units too often doomed to supply of a lower priced product. We must also imagine shared marketing by a large number of operators, which requires a real sense of responsibility of each of these players. At the nursery level, they must be careful not to develop the project outside of varieties with very similar characteristics. Finally, there is the question of the international dimension of such development, knowing that the French industry needs to differentiate, but some concepts can only work if they are present throughout an entire season.

“It is in this spirit that the project Métis® was initiated involving US-Japanese plums. From the breeding program led by Glen Bradford, these varieties of plum have the genetic potential to differentiate themselves into a European market that has been rather gloomy up until now. From the beginning, this Metis® project involved Italian, Spanish and French partners. The interest is sure to give a European dimension to the market that this product aims to capture. But above all, by combining several production areas, the stated objective of building a consistent range on a full season becomes accessible medium term, despite the many technical difficulties in proposing a perfectly segmente  clearly identified, stable, homogeneous and high quality product within a large number of varieties.

“In the present circumstances, there is a strong consumer disappointment with regard to stone fruit,” said Renaud Pierson. “There are answers, guarantees to build, which must find their market compensation via-marketed and identified concepts. Regarding the breeder, it is essential to find him additional compensation methods, for example on fruit sold, otherwise he will be tempted to look for other methods of valorisation by addressing the international market more or by selling exclusivities to commercial operators or to distributors, which would not necessarily be the best idea for the production business. If they made the effort to achieve a more drastic selection and renounce the development of varieties, they must remunerate properly on those which will actually be developed. Its involvement in the final valorization of the product would help motivate the selection effort and also involve the license manager who should be more than just a plant material broker but also a real value builder. “