Information Letter interviewed Dr. Jorge Ignacio Victoria, who for 37 years was part of the Cenicaña team of researchers, first in the area of Plant Pathology and then at the head of the management of the Variety Program. Below is his vision on the development of sugarcane varieties for the Colombian agribusiness.
What would you have wanted to achieve before leaving the direction of the Variety Program?
Unfortunately, when working in sugarcane research we are faced with the reality of not seeing many results because it is long term. When we established projects such as Recurrent Selection for High Sucrose and Marker Assisted Selection (SAM) in the Variety Program, I knew I would not see the results. The first started eight years ago and is still missing about four more years; the second is about nine years old and started just two years ago.
Thus, there are more research projects than the results will be seen much later and that suddenly my successor Freddy Garcés will not be able to see, but that in the end will allow us to have varieties with greater productivity and better behavior, which is our basic objective.
And in biotechnology, did you see results?
Yes. With biotechnological tools we develop the cleaning technique vitro that we use today to introduce material to the country and to our germplasm bank and it was the molecular tools that allowed us to detect how the yellow leaf virus entered and spread in the Colombian agro-industry. Unfortunately at the time we lacked highly sensitive diagnostic methods and hence the cleaning requirement imposed by us vitro for all imported cane material.
It must be understood that biotechnology is much more than genetic transformation; on the contrary, it is a very useful source of molecular tools. Now, if that is what it is, we can say that Cenicaña today has transgenic materials that preliminarily show efficiencies in the use of water and greater production of sucrose, but we still do not have the final results.
Precisely what future do you see for the development of genetically transformed varieties?
For now, I see with difficulty that genetically transformed varieties of cane can be used in sugar production due to the long and expensive process of deregulation. Furthermore, there is increasing pressure against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and therefore brokers International companies ask Cenicaña to certify that the sugar produced in the region is not from genetically modified material.
On the other hand, through the same process of deregulation, I do see that the transformed cane varieties will soon serve the agro-industry to produce ethanol or cogenerate energy.
Other countries have announced with drums and cymbals the use of genetically transformed varieties, like Indonesia about six years ago, and nothing happened with that material. Recently there has been a lot of talk about Brazil, but they have underestimated the deregulation process and say they have a transgenic variety with the Bt gene that controls borer infestation, but as far as I understand it does not increase productivity.
Having new varieties in less time has been a dream for agribusiness and a challenge for Cenicaña, how likely are we to achieve it?
Today our process of development and selection of varieties covers around 9 -10 years at the end of the regional tests, much shorter than in the rest of the countries. The difficulty lies in the multiplication and adoption by different sectors.
With the new multiplication and adoption scheme in stages, a joint effort by the Variety Program and the Technical Cooperation and Technology Transfer Service, we hope that a new variety will require about five years to be adopted.
In Brazil, this process takes twenty years: twelve at the end of regional tests and eight more so that the varieties have importance in the cultivated area.
The development of cane varieties is a slow process and cannot be accomplished in less than ten years, as it happens with soy or corn. With the SAM project we hope to reduce the time, but without a doubt the adoption must be faster.
But in the meantime, new foreign varieties, such as the Brazilian ones, could interest agribusiness ...
It is not a reason for fear, because they will not be more productive than ours and I say it with calm and honesty.
When Cenicaña started, we brought the best varieties that were in the sugar world and today they make up our germplasm bank. In addition, we continue to bring the best varieties from Australia, Brazil, South Africa and they have all been defeated by the Cenicaña Colombia varieties, and not because they are champions, but because they have been selected and improved in our environment and for our conditions. The foreign varieties were improved for other conditions very different from ours.
In the world, wherever you want to look, cane production averages are low, around 60 - 80 tons of cane per hectare (TCH), at best 90 TCH and stop counting. In Colombia, productions are greater than 120 TCH (below that figure, our grower thinks about renewing) and varietal changes have had a lot to do with it, this is the result of a joint work of the sugar mills, technicians, and cane growers. and the investigation of Cenicaña.
In your opinion, what is the factor that most influences productivity?
Varieties without agronomy, without factories, without transfer, are nothing. Today the agribusiness has difficulties because it is said that the cane fields do not give the sucrose that used to be delivered in the past. The first accused have been the varieties, but in the field, where sucrose is truly produced, the plantations are subject to variations in climate, management or harvest.
This means that there are very interesting work scenarios to increase sucrose content on the scale and not just with varieties.
Was there any variety that you expected a lot but ultimately wasn't?
Many. CC 87-434, for example, was one of our first varieties of the Program and today it is one of the most important in Peruvian agribusiness; CC 93-4418, which I still think is a very good variety, but it suffered a period of great drought and was immediately condemned. Unfortunately we have the habit of thinking about the last result or the negative result of a cultivator and not about the set of factors that affect the productions.
Three technologies that you would adopt if you had sugarcane crops?
First, the new varieties, specifically CC 05-430, which I have called 'the variety of the future' due to the combination of high TCH and sucrose and their resistance to diseases and tolerant to Diatraea, perhaps the product of the hybrid vigor it has when coming from the crossing of self-pollinated lines; second, irrigation by reduced flow, which is a very valuable tool that the sector has not used sufficiently; and third, a rational and sustainable management in the fertilization and use of water.
To close this conversation, let me note that the contributions, achievements and results achieved have been the result of an excellent team that worked tirelessly beside me regardless of time and difficulties. I know the team's ability and I know they will continue to bet on the best. I am leaving calm because I know that soon they will achieve better results and exceed the goals reached; of that I'm sure.
Immense thanks to the sector, Cenicaña, its managers, administration, technicians, field staff, service personnel and in general everyone, including those who preceded me in retirement. For you I had a professional life full of satisfactions and results as an agricultural professional. I am happy for the duty done.
In the process of genetic improvement of cane varieties it is very difficult to achieve the combination of two antagonistic variables such as TCH and sucrose.
However, that is the challenge of the investigation. In this search, it has been identified that the variety CC 05-430 could combine these two characteristics and could even be surpassing its parents (mother CC 93-7716 and father CC 93-71136), which are lines originating from the self-pollination of two varieties. well known in the sector as PR 61632 (high TCH) and Mex 641487 (high sucrose).
The hybrid vigor or exploitation of heterosis is widely used in corn, but very little used in sugarcane as it is a very long-term process. The Cenicaña Variety Program started it in 1990 and today it is giving us the first varieties.
CC 05-430 has been developed for a semi-dry environment and is still in regional testing. As in other new varieties, Cenicaña has delivered seed to the mills to adequately monitor them on larger plots.