BELIS Project

Interview with BELIS Project Coordinator, Bernadette Julier – INRAE

«BELIS is dedicated to enhance genetic progress on legumes through technical novelties as well as improve the conditions to deliver the genetic progress to end-users.« – Bernadette Julier

Introduce yourself, your professional background and your role within the BELIS Project.

I am a geneticist, working at INRAE since 1994. My carrier is dedicated to legume crops, a group of species that is of more and more interest for agriculture sustainability and protein autonomy in Europe. It was already true in 1994 and even earlier but few people put this objective as a top priority at that time. My main interest is on perennial forage legumes, among which lucerne or alfalfa that is adapted to a large number of pedoclimatic conditions. I consider breeding as a lever that is able to fix a number of issues: productivity, quality, resistance to pests and diseases, resistance to cold or drought, adaptation to new growing conditions (in mixtures with other species for example). In combination to agronomic practices, genetics and plant breeding, aiming at producing new improved varieties, contribute to bring progress to the farms and the farmers.

I am the Project Coordinator of BELIS, meaning that I have gathered partners to define the most relevant aspects to be studied, in order to reach the ambition given by Horizon Europe on legume breeding. I am also involved in BELIS as a scientist, engaged in producing more results on the genetic control of key breeding traits in lucerne. In addition, I am working with breeders to test new breeding schemes that make use of molecular markers to speed up genetic progress.

Describe BELIS in 1 sentence.

BELIS is dedicated to enhance genetic progress on legumes through technical novelties as well as improve the conditions to deliver the genetic progress to end-users.

BELIS is made up of 34 partners from 18 countries. Describe this consortium and the role played by the different actors for the development of the project.

The consortium is composed of research institutes, some of them being also breeders, private breeders, and also three technical institutes, one registration office and one international organism in charge of education.

To reach BELIS ambition, we needed skills on different legume species, on different traits, on different technics, on different disciplines.

  • We have chosen to work on many legume species, 7 used at grain legumes for feed and food, 7 used at forage legumes for feed or ecosystem services.
  • The traits under study are related to yield, quality, biotic and abiotic resistances, depending on the species. We are studying new phenotyping methodologies such as remote-sensing technics based on image capture.
  • Technics cover phenotyping, genotyping, detection of markers associated to traits, analysis of genetic diversity, breeding methodologies.
  • Disciplines gather genetics and plant breeding, but also phytopathology, entomology, biochemistry. We have also on board economists and experts of regulations on variety rights.

Why this project is relevant: what challenges is BELIS aiming to respond to?

The European agriculture has a very poor protein autonomy, which means that Europe is importing protein from abroad (soybean meal from South America mainly) and consuming nitrogen fertilizers produced with a huge expense of fossil energy. This situation is a threat for Europe sovereignty. In Europe, the legume crops are under-utilized, mostly because the return for farmers is considered as insufficient. As a consequence, the seed industry is not very active on these species and the efforts dedicated to legume breeding are weak. The genetic gap between legume varieties and the main cash crops is thus continuously broadening.

The challenge of BELIS is to give the conditions to produce a strong genetic progress for legume crops, so that the offer in improved legume varieties is no more a limit to legume cropping.

«We expect that the legume seed sector is able to produce improved varieties for many legume crops, for food, feed and ecosystem services, to be delivered to end-users. This will enhance European autonomy for protein, contribute to crop diversification and reduce energy consumption in agriculture.« – Bernadette Julier

Describe the project’s approach, the type of solutions the project is going to work on, the disciplines involved…

A first approach is to facilitate the phenotypic and molecular breeding, by developing new protocols and testing them in “proof-of-concept” breeding programmes.

A second approach is to improve the variety registration process. We will develop and test cost-effective molecular markers to assist the Distinction-Uniformity-Stability tests. Value for Cultivation and Use tests will be conducted in a few agrizones, at a transnational level, with the objective to enhance the relevance of the evaluations of candidate varieties.

A third approach is to inform about the legume varieties available in Europe and their adaptation to different regions, including by making use to crop modelling.

Another approach is to analyze the governance and business models of the public and private breeders to identify the most promising ones. BELIS will also analyze the financing mechanisms and look for possibilities to include down-stream actors of the value chains in this support.

Finally, BELIS has also the ambition to build a network of all actors involved and interested in legume genetic progress: breeders, scientists, extension services, registration offices, seed industry, and all end-users (feed and food industry, farmer associations, consumer associations). This network, during and beyond BELIS, will be the place for dissemination, trainings, collaborations and all types of exchanges that may boost legume breeding.

BELIS was kicked-off in October 2023. Could you describe what the first steps of the project are?

It was important to all meet in persons and to build a common view of the whole project, in which each one has an important role. Partners discussed about the experiments and studies, focussing on the ones to be installed during the first year.

What may be the project’s benefits for the sector and for society in general?

We expect that the legume seed sector is able to produce improved varieties for many legume crops, for food, feed and ecosystem services, to be delivered to end-users. This will enhance European autonomy for protein, contribute to crop diversification and reduce energy consumption in agriculture.

The BELIS project has received funding from the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under the Grant Agreement N°101081878.

1st BELIS project Kick-Off Meeting!

The first BELIS project Kick-Off Meeting was held on 17th and 18th October 2023 in Ancenis, France.

This meeting was a great opportunity to present the BELIS objectives and concept: enable a shared understanding of the project and its aims, as well as an effective collaboration between project partners.

The BELIS team also was able to get to know the project partners and foster interaction, establish the basis for working together, as well as present the project organisation, management and decision-making and detail the work packages, timetable and roadmap for the first year of the project.

We also had the presentation from the European Commission by Susana Gaona Saez, Policy Officer from DG AGRI.

    The BELIS project has received funding from the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under the Grant Agreement N°101081878.

    Launch of Horizon Europe funded project ‘BELIS’: Breeding European Legumes for Increased Sustainability

    The 5-year innovation project aims at increasing the competitiveness of the legume breeding industry in the EU and Associated Countries.

    BELIS seeks to design conditions that allow an achievement of genetic progress by breeders and its efficient delivery to the seed industry, as well as to other stakeholders.

    The BELIS project started on 1st October 2023, with a consortium of 34 partners, including research and technical institutes, plant breeders and seed companies as well as other relevant actors in legume breeding from 18 countries (15 EU countries, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Lebanon).

    On 17th and 18th October 2023, the consortium partners will gather at the project’s kick-off meeting that will mark the official launch of this multi-actor project. The event, organised by INRAE as project coordinator, will be held in person and will take place in Ancenis, France, at Cérience/Terrena headquarters. Over these two days, partners will engage in exchanges about BELIS’ objectives and methodologies with the aim of establishing the first steps of the project. The meeting includes a visit to the Terrena seed factory in Beaufort-en-Vallée.

    Sustainability and competitiveness challenges in legume breeding

    Legumes are widely acknowledged to provide multiple benefits in farming and food systems: They are a source of proteins and other nutrients for human and animal consumption, and when included in cropping systems they can fix atmospheric nitrogen, besides other advantages linked to crop rotations. However, their presence in European cropping systems has not reached its potential, and Europe is still highly dependent on plant protein imports. One of the reasons is the lack of sufficient legume varieties that can provide stable and abundant yields adapted to different agro climatic situations and stresses, with quality traits suitable for food and feed.

    Less-than-optimal breeding efforts have so far been invested by public and private breeders. But with adequate breeding inputs, the genetic gains in legume crops could reach those obtained in major crops. While legume breeding is mostly based on traditional phenotypic recurrent selection that requires updating, the use of molecular information and exploitation of genetic resources could also increase selection intensity and speed.

    In addition, the genetic progress achieved in new varieties could be delivered much more efficiently to the legume value chain actors (farmers, food and feed industry) and the specific requirements of down-stream actors could be better considered in breeding. The first step of genetic progress delivery relies on the variety registration process, ruled at an international level but conducted by national registration offices. The current registration process needs to be improved by putting a stronger focus on the stakeholders’ needs. The second step is to provide adequate information on the available varieties. Extension services could efficiently deliver information to all actors of the legume value chains, and the seed industry is pivotal in the delivery of genetic progress to farmers by granting access to improved seeds. Finally, improved governance and business models should be developed to allow more efficient, profitable and diverse legume varieties to reach farms.

    BELIS objectives

    As a whole, the BELIS project will address these challenges and deliver tools and solutions that will enhance the economic sustainability of legume-based farming systems. This ultimate goal will be attained through three specific objectives:

    1. To develop tools and methodologies for cost-effective breeding programmes and deliver proofs of concept, with and for breeders.
    2. To facilitate the economic and regulatory environment: variety registration, variety recommendation and business models.
    3. To implement an efficient, ambitious and durable transfer of innovation through the BELIS platform that includes a network of breeders and actors from scientific research, extension services and seed, food and feed industries, as well as a training portfolio.

    The project will focus on seven forage crops (red, white and annual clovers, lucerne, sainfoin, birdsfoot trefoil and vetches) and seven grain crops (pea, faba bean, soybean, white lupin, lentil, chickpea and common bean) representing the diversity of legume species cultivated in Europe.

    The project will focus on seven forage crops (red, white and annual clovers, lucerne, sainfoin, birdsfoot trefoil and vetches) and seven grain crops (pea, faba bean, soybean, white lupin, lentil, chickpea and common bean) representing the diversity of legume species cultivated in Europe.

    BELIS will provide scientific advances and technical innovations on key aspects of the breeding process: genotyping and phenotyping methods and tools, proposals for agronomic and technological characterisation of varieties, cross testing in different conditions, and pathways for improving and homogenising registration processes. All these results will be streamed to design and validate new governance and business models for the legume breeding industry. An ambitious networking, dissemination, capacity building and exploitation plan will help BELIS results and recommendations reach the breeding industry, the farmers and the regulatory bodies.

    BELIS will contribute to a more competitive legume breeding industry in Europe and to delivering profitable and adapted genetic varieties for European farmers seeking better legume seeds.

    For more information, please contact:

    BELIS Project coordinator: Bernadette Julier bernadette.julier@inrae.fr

    Visit BELIS project website: http://www.belisproject.eu/

    The BELIS project has received funding from the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under the Grant Agreement N°101081878.