John Meeuwsen is one of Monsanto’s most experienced breeders based in the Netherlands.
John breeds new spinach varieties each year for different markets around the world, including Australia and New Zealand, North and South America, Europe and Asia.
Tell us a little about your background and how you became involved in Monsanto’s spinach program.
I started my career for De Ruiter Seeds in 1995 breeding Lebanese Cucumbers and after 13 years I moved to breeding specialty tomatoes. When Monsanto acquired De Ruiter Seeds I began breeding Spinach.
Monsanto’s spinach breeding program has run for 30 years and has had many successes: we’ve made great breakthroughs with Pfs1-7, Pfs1-13 and Pfs1-14 resistant varieties. (Pfs is Downy Mildew) With all the experience in the company and the newest technologies available, it is the most challenging program for me so far.
Spinach is a challenging crop from both a breeding perspective and a disease development perspective. Spinach is mainly a wind pollinated crop, which gives us scale and hybridity challenges. Pressure from Downy Mildew means us spinach breeders must adapt our portfolio almost every year. There is never a dull moment.
How important is your interaction with growers in the breeding process?
The growers are start and end point of the whole breeding process. I travel as much as possible to interact with growers. I am looking forward to a visit to Australia in April 2016. On the other side I receive a lot of feedback from growers visiting our breeding station in the Netherlands. My goal is to hear from growers what is good and what is bad, but more importantly what they think is important for the future. Breeding is a long term process; it takes between five and eight years to bring a new variety to the market, so the information growers share is key to my breeding program and future developments.
What sort of leaf types are you breeding for?
The breeding program in the Netherlands is a global program serving all leaf types: smooth, savoy and oriental and all cropping purposes from baby leaf, bunching and processing. Each region, grower and processor requires its own leaf shape; the triangular, oriental leaf shape is popular in Asia, and the savoy and smooth leaf type are preferred in Europe, America and Australia.
What are Australian growers looking for in new spinach varieties?
For Australia, we mainly work on Downy Mildew resistant baby leaf varieties, with dark, shiny, thick, oval to round leaves, varieties like SV2146VC and SV2157VC. Varieties we offer to Australia should have variable growth speed for all seasons.
How does Monsanto ensure growers can stay ahead of new strains of diseases?
We put a lot of resources into monitoring diseases and breeding for resistance. We cooperate with growers all over the world to collect diseases. As growers monitor a problematic disease, they can contact us and we’ll start working on identification straight away. Downy Mildew is our most important but we also breed for leafspot and wilting diseases.
New Downy Mildew races develop all of the time and breeding for downy mildew resistance has become one of my biggest challenges as a plant breeder. As soon as a new Downy Mildew race pops up we start looking for resistances to cross into our newest germplasm.
What is your favorite vegetable to eat, and why and why?
Spinach of course! I always have the opportunity to eat spinach all through the day, and it still remarkable to see the different salad dishes my wife prepares in the evening to continue eating spinach. My favorite way to eat spinach is in a salad mixed with specialty tomatoes and Lebanese cucumbers – then you have the best mix.