Agroecology 4 min

Rapeseed: the power of partnerships

Work by the rapeseed research group has yielded innovations that affect the ways in which we farm and raise livestock as well as the food and fuel we consume. The group has established dynamic collaborations with private partners in agribusiness and food production. Its research provides a shining example of science with an impact.

Published on 08 December 2015

illustration Rapeseed: the power of partnerships
© INRAE, Ch. Maître

Forty years ago, rapeseed was a crop of minor importance only grown in Europe. Since then, it has muscled its way to the top, where it has joined the other oilseed heavyweights: palm oil trees, soybeans, sunflowers, and peanuts.

Michel Renard is one of the long-standing members of the group who accepted the award. As a scientist who has spent the last 40 years studying the plant, he opines, “The history of INRA rapeseed research is unique.” The rapeseed research that has been conducted at INRA is indeed without precedent. It is the product of a vibrant synergy between a public research institute and the private sector that involves researchers working in various disciplines. Since 1974, INRA research teams located in Rennes, Versailles, and Grignon, among others, have partnered up to tackle major scientific questions concerning this crop species; they have come to be known as “the rapeseed research group.”.

Objective: greater autonomy for France

This quest for autonomy continues today

In the beginning, the cultivation of rapeseed was viewed as a potential solution to food crises and their related challenges. The US soy embargo, skyrocketing oil prices, uncertain peanut supplies—the turmoil of the 1970s prompted France to seek greater self-sufficiency. Then, in the 1990s, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was adopted by the European Union; it required member states to leave a certain amount of land fallow. However, since non-food crops could be grown on these lands, France took the opportunity to launch itself into biofuel production. This quest for autonomy continues today in the field of green chemistry.

Each step of the way, it was crucial to select “good” rapeseed cultivars. “Only rarely has INRA research had such a major impact […], in this case it took the form of three consecutive scientific revolutions,” says Michel Boucly, head of the Avril group, an agribusiness company that focuses on edible vegetable oils, biodiesel, and green chemistry.

From 0- to 00-rapeseed: a double revolution

It all began with the goal of producing a high-quality edible vegetable oil. Plant breeding experiments generated the first rapeseed cultivar with high levels of omega 3 and low levels of erucic acid, a compound thought to cause heart problems. This plant became known as 0 rapeseed. Starting in the 1970s, a partnership was established with Serasem, the only plant-breeding company in France at the time. As a result, new rapeseed cultivars of the same type were developed. They were a success and subsequently spread across Europe, accounting for 2/3 of the cultivated land dedicated to rapeseed. The first rapeseed revolution had occurred.

The rapeseed group then aimed to reduce levels of glucosinolates, sulfur-containing compounds, in oilcakes. Oilcakes are the residues left over after the oil has been extracted from rapeseed plants; previously, their high levels of glucosinolates made them unhealthy fodder for swine and poultry. The 00-rapeseed cultivar—so-named for its low levels of both erucic acid and glucosinolates—was born. Henceforth, the new protein-rich oilcakes could be fed to livestock instead of being spread on fields. A second revolution swept through.

Hybrid rapeseed conquers the world

Around the same time period, the rapeseed group was carrying out research on hybrid vigor, with the goal of creating higher-yield rapeseed hybrids. The challenge was that rapeseed plants are self-pollinating, with hermaphroditic flowers. Research into interspecific hybridization techniques made it possible to generate the first female-only line, which meant that reliable genetic crosses could then be obtained. Restoring male fertility in these hybrids was the last piece of the puzzle. The gene responsible for male sterility was first identified by scientists at the INRA center in Versailles. Thirteen years later, the fertility-restoring gene was isolated thanks to collaborative work by researchers in Evry, Rennes, and Versailles.

A system described as "perfect"

The Ogu-INRA system was thus created and rapidly patented. It spread throughout Europe, North America, and Australia. Jean-Pierre Despeghel of the French Union of Seed Companies (Union française des semenciers [UFS]) described it as “perfect” compared to other competing systems. The third revolution had taken place.

The patents associated with the research described above account for almost 90% of INRA’s royalty income. “We have fought to protect an open-licensing system and free access to seeds for research purposes, which has involved purchasing competing patents. The financial support of our private-sector partners has been essential in these efforts,” comments Georges Pelletier, another long-standing member of the research group. At present, rapeseed hybrids are grown on over 90% of the land dedicated to rapeseed cultivation in France.

More resistant rapeseed means higher yields


Linking two resistance mechanisms in the plant

Ensuring higher yields also involves providing protection against pests and pathogens. Blackleg disease, caused by the fungal pathogen Leptosphaeria maculans, has long severely plagued rapeseed farmers. Once again, partnerships among INRA researchers, and more specifically geneticists and plant pathologists, have been highly productive.
At Rennes and Grignon, researchers examined the mechanisms and durability of rapeseed resistance as well as the virulence and population dynamics of L. maculans. The findings served as the foundation for a system used worldwide to characterize L. maculans strains and plant resistant mechanisms. In 2010, the same researchers experimentally showed that the durability of plant resistance could be enhanced by linking two resistance mechanisms. This work has been highly valuable to plant-breeding companies and has helped prevent crop losses in countries as far away as Australia.

Clearly, INRA rapeseed researchers form a unique group with a unique history. As Michel Renard underscores, “This group is unique because of its public- and private-sector partnerships and its ability to wield synergy as a tool to push the limits of the field.” The group remains in the rapeseed research vanguard as it tackles ever newer challenges.

The reasons behind this success

40 years of research and innovation of the Rapeseed Group have transformed our countrysides by colouring them bright yellow in spring... Their research has made rapeseed, now cultivated on more than a million hectares, apt to provide a high quality oil for food, diester for our engines, cosmetic or pharmaceutical products and feed for our livestock.

Six researchers, ambassadors of the group, represent the high points of this success. Questioned on the reasons behind this success, they talk about what shaped the identity and dynamics of the Rapeseed Group:

  • Synergies with private breeders, the agricultural profession and rapeseed processing companies, who made it possible to coordinate goals and means;
  • Exchanges between researchers, the quality of which enabled each person to progress in a complementary rather than a competitive manner;
  • Transdisciplinarity: geneticists, molecular biologists, pathologists, agronomists, zoologists, biochemists shared research questions, their doubts, their results and mutually enriched their research;
  • International aspect: essential collaborations with scientists from other institutes in the world, both concerning rapeseed and its worst enemy, the fungi responsible for blackleg;
  • Concern for making the innovation available for the consumer, breeding the most adapted plants for the market, making sure the innovative varieties are available and reliable for the agricultural world and making genetic progress accessible to private breeders for research purposes. The royalties from commercialised varieties makes it possible to finance new research at INRA;
  • Confidence of INRA leaders, such as Jacques Poly, who from the beginning supported the orientations of the group and backed them politically. Confidence also from the heads of the research divisions on research topics which were sometimes off the beaten track.

They all agree on one essential point: there would not have been as strong an impact in society without excellent fundamental research.

From left to right: Hortense Brun, Régine Delourme, Marie-Hélène Balesdent, Françoise Budar, Michel Renard, Georges Pelletier
From left to right: Hortense Brun, Régine Delourme, Marie-Hélène Balesdent, Françoise Budar, Michel Renard, Georges Pelletier. © INRA, C Maître, V Gavalda

In 2014, the rapeseed group turned 40—it is older and growing ever wiser

  • The group had 5 members in 1974. It now comprises 80 researchers, engineers, and technicians.
  • In 1965, rapeseed was grown on 150,000 hectares of land in France. The 00-rapeseed cultivar is currently grown on 1.5 million hectares in Franceand 8 million hectares worldwide.
  • France imports less than 50% of its oilcakes. The European average is 68%.
  • In 1974, only 1 plant-breeding company used the Ogu-INRA system. Today, 12 companies do.
  • Blackleg resistance means fewer crops are lost; estimated savings range between 50 and 300 million euros per year (depending on disease severity).
rapeseed-research-group-more-than-50-scientists-honoured.pdfpdf - 87.98 KB

Nicole Ladet, Pascale Mollier, Eric Connehayetranslated by Jessica Pearce


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