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RETAIL VIEW: Seed company executive advocates working with retailers on new varieties

The president of Syngenta Seed Vegetables began a dialogue with the retail community earlier this month in an effort to combine what he called "food science" with "consumer science" to build fruit and vegetable varieties that better fit the needs of the ultimate buyer.

For far too long, seed companies have geared their breeding efforts toward solving the needs of growers rather than producing characteristics that consumers want, Syngenta's Dan Burdett said, adding that this has resulted in varieties with increased yield and other production improvements from the producer's viewpoint, but the desires of the consumer have rarely been taken into account.

Speaking to the National Grocers Association Feb. 10 at the group's annual convention in Las Vegas, NV, the seed company executive said that Syngenta wants to partner with retailers to build better varieties as far as the consumer is concerned. He said that retailers, armed with their scan data and other consumer research, are much more attuned to the needs and wants of the consumer than the seed industry is.

"We can build a new kind of strategic partnership," Mr. Burdett said to the mostly independent grocery executives. "With the groundbreaking advances we're making in plant sciences, we can create differentiation and add value all along the produce supply chain. But we can only achieve maximum value if our work in breeding is paired with your intimate connection to the consumer."

In an interview after the speech, Mr. Burdett told The Produce News that he considered his appearance just the first step in what he hopes is an ongoing collaboration with the retail community. He said that the speech was an introduction of the direction Syngenta wants to go, and that he and his staff will follow it up with further contacts, although he did not specify what those would be.

The collaboration needs to begin at the highest level with the top executives of Syngenta communicating their ideas to the top executives in the retail community, said Mr. Burdett. At some point, retail produce executives would also have a role in this collaboration, but he said that it was very important to get the buy-in of the retail executives.

Syngenta does have some experience in this arena, as the company launched California-based Dulcinea Farms to market the Pureheart personal-sized watermelon that it created after conducting consumer research.

Mr. Burdett said that Syngenta is the leading watermelon seed producer, but that sales of the product were declining when research revealed that consumers wanted a smaller, sweeter, seedless watermelon. The company's seed breeders developed PureHeart, and Syngenta launched Dulcinea Farms to develop a seed-to-market strategy.

"The mini-watermelon has been a maxi-success," he said. "PureHearts have been flying off the shelves. They command a premium price because they meet consumer needs and are consistent in flavor and texture."

Since then, Syngenta has developed some other proprietary produce items that it sells exclusively through Dulcinea Farms.

Mr. Burdett said that advances in seed-breeding techniques have allowed Syngenta to develop ideas much more quickly than before and bring new products to market in an expedited fashion. He said that the old rule of thumb that it took seven years to develop a new variety is no longer accurate. "The full genome sequence for tomatoes is now available," he told his audience at the NGA show. "We had the complete sequence for major crops five years ago, and more sequencing is underway. With this, for example, we are increasingly able to give people the sweeter-tasting fruits they prefer without increasing the sugar content that adds calories, diminishes nutrition levels and reduces yield."

Mr. Burdett indicated that the focus of the consumer is ever changing, and if the fruit and vegetable industry is to increase consumption of its products, then better items, from a consumer perspective, must be sold at retail.

"In the tough, competitive environment you face, you know it's important to make the shopping experience exciting and beneficial for your customers," he said. "Today, customers are looking for value and convenience -- but they also want quality in terms of consistent flavor and texture. By joining your consumer knowledge with our plant knowledge, we can provide more of the 'designer' fruits and vegetables that will make your shelves hum and customers keep coming back."

In conclusion, the Syngenta executive told the NGA crowd, "By working more closely with you in grocery retail, we in the seed industry can do much more and do it more efficiently and in a more targeted way. You have access to your customers. Through their participation in product trials and in-store tests, you can obtain information that is priceless to our organization."