Ali Ozbugday comes from a long line of entrepreneurs. The family was part of the revolution which, after decades of dependence on imports in the agricultural sector, turned Turkey into a big seed exporter and a major cotton producer. Ozbugday feels the balance is shifting again - and European crop production could owe a lot to Turkey in the coming years.
Ozbugday’s professional career reflects the growing autonomy and economic vigour of his home country. After completing his studies in the United States, he started working in his family’s farms. Now he is the President of ProGen, a 100% Turkish-owned and a rapidly-expanding SME. Specialising in the development of new crop varieties without recourse to genetic modification, it is supplying seeds to producers worldwide.
ProGen played an important role in the Eurostars EASTBRED research project, a collaboration between agronomists from Turkey, Austria and Croatia. The project’s objective was to introduce new breeds of barley and wheat crops to the fields of central and eastern Europe. EASTBRED is not only an answer to the producers’ demand for new, stronger crop varieties, but is also a gamble on the seed market’s future evolution. ‘We have developed more resistant crop lines with a higher potential to adapt, notably to the conditions created by climate change,’ says Ozbugday.
AN ANSWER TO CLIMATE CHANGE
‘The weather in Turkey can be extreme, with harsh winters and hot, dry summers putting crops under an unusual strain. In this difficult environment, it is hard to maintain a good level of production,’ Ozbugday explains. With weather anomalies provoked by global warming, it is not uncommon to find similar atmospheric conditions further north. A range of cereal diseases and pests typical to the south of Europe or Africa have also spread to central Europe.
‘WE HAVE DEVELOPED MORE RESISTANT CROP LINES WITH A HIGHER POTENTIAL TO ADAPT TO THE CONDITIONS CREATED BY CLIMATE CHANGE.'
Biologists have observed that, as temperatures increase, some varieties of plants indigenous to southern Europe have made their way up to the northern part of the continent. As they are adapted to drier weather conditions as well as to the plagues particular to the hot Mediterranean climate, these plants are progressively replacing indigenous varieties. Similarly, the EASTBRED project helps Turkish crops to disseminate up north.
‘The best varieties of barley and wheat, commonly grown in central Europe have been crossed with particularly resistant Turkish species, by using conventional breeding techniques,’ Ozbugday explains. The process, he describes, is particularly long and tedious compared to the creation of genetically-modified breeds, as it can take from two to 10 years, much more than GM-based techniques. ‘The breeding experiments started during the project are not over,’ he adds, ‘it is an ongoing process, and every year our research centres will bring us new products to provide our customers.’
For ProGen, the EASTBRED project has also been the occasion to reach new markets, with an offer now better adapted to the demand of its European customers. But Europe is not the final frontier to the company’s expansion: ‘One of our primary markets in the future will be Russia,’ says Ozbugday.
A TURKISH STAR FOR EUROPE
In Ozbudgay’s own words, after the participation of ProGen in the Eurostars Programme, the company’s turnover should ‘double up in the next five years’ and it may only take two to three years before ProGen secures a dominant position in its target markets. Taking part in Eurostars, the first European funding programme created for small companies in the high-tech sector, also had an influence on the company’s investment in research. ProGen now employs seven full-time researchers as a direct result of the EASTBRED project.
‘THANKS TO EUROSTARS , PROGEN'S TURNOVER SHOULD DOUBLE UP IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS.'
Other partners in the project will also reinforce their positions on the market. It is notably the case of Saatzucht Donau, an Austrian company, which provided vital technical expertise to the project and the indigenous European cereals crossed with Turkish crops. ‘Saatzucht Donau has been an important party in the EASTBRED project and I think that we have also been a good partner for them, we had a strong synergy,’ says Ozbugday. Another Austrian partner was the Vienna Institute of Cereal processing which developed new analysis methods to evaluate the resilience of the new crops, which were tested on-site in the fields of PMT, a Croatian company, based in the most Northern and continental part of the country.
ProGen is now involved in a second Eurostars project called GENOWHEAT. The aim is to reintroduce to Europe some long-cultivated and particularly resistant varieties of crop, growing only in Turkey. The country’s exceptional diversity of cultivated plants is not new. Nine thousand years ago, Turkey was at the heart of the region from where agriculture, and probably Indo-European languages, spread to Europe and central Asia. This region, known as ‘the Fertile Crescent’, was where the crops used in the EASTBRED and GENOWHEAT projects were originally cultivated.
Today ProGen builds on Turkey’s historical and geographic advantage to place itself at the forefront of innovation in agriculture.