A celebratory event to mark the 25th anniversary of a hugely successful partnership between academia and industry, and a discovery which changed modern farming practices worldwide, took place last month at the University of Warwick.
The discovery of male sterility in leeks in 1993 at what was Horticulture Research International (HRI) – now the Crop Centre, part of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick, led to the development of the hybrid leek, moving away from open pollination and transforming commercial leek production for ever.
The event which was held at Warwick’s Wellesbourne Campus, re-united Brian Smith, former Research Leader in Plant Genetics and Biotechnology at HRI and Toon Van Doormalen, plant breeder for BASF Vegetable Seeds (formerly Nunhems Seeds). It was Mr Smith and his breeding team, who first discovered male sterility in leeks – a key component in the development of hybrid varieties.
The advantages of the hybrid breeding programme are widely recognised, bringing improved yields, better uniformity, and greater resistance to pests and disease. Today around 99% of all leeks grown and consumed are hybrids, demonstrating the huge impact the discovery had. In addition, it has resulted in the creation of new products such as pre-packaged leeks – only possible with a highly uniform crop.
The event highlighted how complex horticultural research has had a huge commercial impact and ultimately change both farming practices and public consumption. It included presentations by both Brian Smith and Toon Van Doorman, followed by a tour of the BASF Seeds trial leek plots.
Commenting on the event, co-host Robert Murison of BASF Vegetable Seeds said: “We were delighted to be able to re-unite two of the key players in the discovery and development of hybrid leeks: Brian Smith and Toon Van Doorman. Their combined expertise and innovation demonstrated how academic research at the former Horticultural Research International and commerce i.e. BASF Seeds have successfully partnered to significantly improve crop performance, so transforming a sector of vegetable farming.”
Brian Smith, former Research Leader in Plant Genetics and Biotechnology added: “It took painstaking and meticulous research, viewing many thousands of leeks to find the rare male sterile. I can’t say it was a discovery that came as a blinding flash, but as with all these things there was an element of serendipity.”
“I still have a sense of pride when I visit a supermarket and see the produce that I had a part in developing, I always look at the leeks and onions when I visit”
Dr Rosemary Collier of the Warwick Crop Centre, University of Warwick concluded: “The development of male sterile lines of leek was a pivotal point in the production of F1- hybrid varieties and transforming commercial leek production. Leeks are a vegetable staple in households across the globe and important to the British economy. We are thrilled to have marked the 25th anniversary of this important link between academia and commercial production.”
The event attracted around 40 delegates drawn from farming, horticulture and academia and was hosted by the University of Warwick at its Wellesbourne Campus, which is also home to the Defra-funded UK Vegetable Gene Bank.
Photo caption: Visitors touring trial leek field sites at Warwick University