Archive Article: 1997/08/02

2 August 1997

Confused about whos who in the seed breeding business? We guide you through the mergers and buy-outs of the past few years.

BARQUITO, a boat-shaped bread designed to hold fillings without going soggy, is being heralded as a break through in snack foods.

It also represents the wide-reaching changes that have taken place within the plant breeding world over the past decade and its continuing globalisation.

Which helps to explain why so many names that farmers have long been familiar with, have changed and changed again in a series of mergers, buy-outs, buy-backs, takeovers, rationalisations and down sizings.

For the barquito is not being introduced by one of the multinational catering groups; it comes to you courtesy of Nickerson Technologies at Rothwell where, alongside Buster, Rifle, Linola and Merkur they are selling French bread.

Bread, shipped across the Channel from the bakeries of Nickersons parent company, the farmers co-operative Groupe Limagrain, is just one of the foods which marketing development manager David Pearson is handling in a trade which has grown to a turnover of £2m within the last 12 months. One day he will be in the field debating with a group of farming customers about the characteristics of a cereal variety, the next he might be talking to supermarket chains or food manufacturers.

Rothwell is now part of a world-wide operation which encompasses food production from the breeding of original seed, right through to the consumers plate. It is the plate on which the plant breeder must now keep his eye.

One hundred and fifty miles south, at Cambridge, the research and development arm of PBI (Plant Breeding International) is working on palm oil and tea as part of its role as a main player in the Plantation and Plant Science Group of Unilever – its parent company.

Both plant breeding companies have been acquired by owners who want the ability to breed crop varieties designed specifically for a particular use.

Across the Atlantic Monsanto has been busily acquiring a clutch of seed businesses in the United States and Brazil while back here in the UK, S and G Seeds, New Farm Crops, N K Seeds and Hilleshog (United Kingdom) Ltd are now owned by Novartis, a vast pharmaceutical company formed by the merger of Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz. The merger also resulted in Novartis becoming the second largest seeds company in the world after Pioneer.

Scientific techniques

And the aim of both Monsanto and Novartis? To apply biological science techniques across a wide spectrum – agriculture, food and human health with plant breeding playing a material part in all three.

"Altering the starch content of a crop to make it more palatable and easier to digest, for instance," explains Richard Powell of Novartis Seeds Ltd (formerly Hilleshog). "Producing plant vehicles for drugs is another."

"You see, seeds have no political boundaries," says Chris Green, managing director of Semundo, which became wholly owned by the Swedish farmers co-op Svalof Weibull AB four years ago.

"All the large combines that are being formed, are placing their breeding stations for different crops in the appropriate geographic locations – as well as Sweden and Britain, for instance, Svalof is in Canada, Argentina and Spain. We are going to see the smaller companies making strategic alliances. "

New Farm Crops oversees cereals breeding for the Novartis group, from the British base. "We have breeding stations in France and Germany which major on spring and winter barley." explains managing director Stephen Smith.

Seven years ago Nickerson was bought to add cereal breeding to the portfolio of Groupe Limagrain which until then had concentrated on vegetables, flowers, agricultural and amenity grasses and hybrid crops, especially maize.

Under the name Nickerson Holdings there are three other breeding stations in France, Germany and Spain.

For Unilever, PBI Cambridge is one of the three breeding stations fitted to the northern European climate. The others are at Chartres in France and Magdeburg in Germany.

Breeding centres

Norfolk and Lincolnshire were destined to become the cereal breeding centres when the Zeneca pharmaceutical and agrochemical group, and COSUN, the Dutch sugar co-operative, brought together their seed interests. This is now Advanta BV, a company which operates across Europe, north and south America, Australia and Asia.

"Sunflowers are bred in the United States and southern Europe, maize in the United States, sugar beet in Belgium and Holland, oilseed rape in France," explains Dr Thomas Joliffe who heads the British breeding programme.

"Crossing can take place anywhere, but of the crops suitable for particular climate and conditions, the varieties are selected and trialled as close to home as possible.

"For instance, the sugar beet crosses are made at our stations in Rilland in Holland and Tienen in Belgium, but are brought here for further development.

"When it comes to biotechnology, though, there will be centres of excellence staffed by a team of scientists who will carry out all the work."

The particular merger which resulted in the formation of Advanta Holdings (UK) Ltd, as the parent group for the British companies this year, has a history almost as complex as a new cereal variety.

Bioscience potential

In 1987 ICI, seeing the potential for bioscience, moved into plant breeding with the purchase of Miln Marsters and Sinclair McGill to create ICI Seeds (UK) Ltd.

The name changed to Zeneca Seeds (UK) Ltd when ICI divided its pharmaceutical and agricultural interests.

Meanwhile over at Sleaford, Charles Sharpe and Co plc had been bought by Booker plc owner of Hurst Gunson Cooper Taber Ltd., which then merged the two companies to form Booker Seeds Ltd in 1987.

In 1991 Booker sold to Abbeygrand Ltd., the UK holding company set up by the Royal Vanderhave Group, and Sharpes International Seeds Ltd emerged. Abbeygrand then acquired the name and certain assets of Sinclair McGill (from ICI Seeds) and set up Sinclair McGill Seed Ltd. In the same year it took control of the Mommersteeg Seed Company Ltd.

This year the lot came together under the Advanta label – but the individual companies retained their names and identities.

By comparison the formation of CBP Twyford has been a very simple procedure. Two years ago Cambridge Plant Breeders (owned by the Agricultural Genetics Company Ltd) merged with Twyford Seeds (owned by Bibby and Son plc).

The business was then bought by a European consortium of plant breeding specialists, Lochow-Petkus (part of the German KWS group) and the French organisation SIGMA in association with NPZ-Lembke.

Lochow-Petkus, which has plant breeding stations throughout Europe, wanted to establish a UK based cereals breeding programme.

But not all companies are for sale. Despite the blandishments of many suitors, Elsoms Seeds at Spalding remains as independent as it was when it was formed153 years ago.

Members of the family of John Keeling, who became a partner with the Elsom brothers in 1942 and who was chairman for almost three decades, are still involved as executive directors of Elsoms (Spalding) Ltd., the holding company.

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