Creating Next Generation Sweet Corn For Growers Worldwide

Innovation Impact
Sweet Corn Cross Section Main Image

While sweet corn might be several thousand years old, we’ve barely cracked the surface of its potential. With higher yield potential, sugar content, taste, and much more to continue to consider, sweet corn’s future holds promise. 

For now, the next chapter starts in Stanton, Minn. at Syngenta’s sweet corn Yield Accelerator facility where you’ll find golden kernels of opportunity. The research performed on up-and-coming sweet corn hybrids represents a treasure of data, yield advancement, and opportunity for the crop. 

From germination to grocery store shelf, every step in sweet corn’s journey is important. Corn doesn’t determine yield just during pollination, instead early vegetative and post-reproductive stages are also key factors in creating high-yielding crops. Finding genetics that support season-long plant health and productivity is paramount to success. 

“When a grower plants corn in the field, they want to know it will be a consistent stand,” said Ilene Jones, Syngenta Sweet Corn Breeding Team Lead. “They want a healthy plant, which might mean disease resistance, strong stalks, etc. They need a crop that matures at the same time, so harvest is consistent. 

“For processors, they want consistency and reliability not only in the grower’s field, but while it’s in a canning and freezing facility, too. For them, easy-to-remove husks, good flow, and high recovery are priorities.” 

Sweet corn is in a field of its own, grower needs are vastly different to that of their field corn neighbors, and even other vegetable growers have different experiences. When the complexity of fresh market versus processing is added in, there’s much to consider. For growers who work in the sweet corn processing – freezing and canning – industry, Syngenta aims to be a partner for those unique challenges. 


Understand Production Challenges 

Unless you’ve been in a sweet corn canning or freezing facility it’s hard to conceptualize the complexity. It’s hard to know what growers and processors need for sweet corn that goes through these facilities without first understanding how corn moves through the facility itself. 

That’s why Syngenta created its own sweet corn processing facility in Stanton, Minn. The Yield Accelerator building houses the equipment needed to can and freeze sweet corn the same way major processors do—just at a smaller scale. 

“It’s very important that Syngenta invested in this facility,” Jones said. “With it, we can help our processor customers by better evaluating the hybrids they’ll be using. They get to see it in the field, and as the finished product they’ll be producing.” 

The Yield Accelerator Building provides needed insights into what processors need from sweet corn varieties. These insights are provided back to breeders, who integrate the data into the breeding process to make better informed decisions about what hybrids to move forward. 

“We can use this information to determine what parent lines are contributing to increased yield and recovery – one of the most important factors in sweet corn processing,” said Glenn McKay, Regional Portfolio Manager, Sweet Corn. “Recovery at the processing facility, in this case sweet corn, is the difference between what is purchased from the field and what actually goes out the door at the end of the day in cans or freezer bags.” 

Breeders look for 45% to 50% recovery, but higher is always the goal because this is one of the most important factors contributing to profitability. While checking for recovery, researchers also note how certain hybrids flow through the facility, any kernel shape or color challenges, and taste test. 

Syngenta is the only vegetable seed company investing in understanding processor concerns, and it’s an investment that will continue because these challenges are best understood by practice—actually processing and testing the sweet corn in canning and freezing. 


Protect Yield in the Field 

At Syngenta, breeders and researchers are passionate about creating sweet corn hybrids that withstand the challenges that come each season. The research and development process is stringent, which ensures only the best hybrids make the cut to grower fields. 

“We know sweet corn has unique plant needs compared to field corn and other vegetables,” Jones said. “It needs to be something easy to pick on the cob, without too much extra material to work through the processing plant. You could have the perfect yielding variety, but if it doesn’t pick well, it’s not going to work.” 

Whether growers are using sweet corn for fresh market or selling to processors, yield is king. Throughout the research processes, yield is a key consideration for any hybrid in the pipeline. In addition, breeders maintain kernel quality and plant uniformity to help growers have the best product at the end of the season. 

It’s not an overnight process to achieve high-yielding, high-quality sweet corn hybrids. But, together with the Yield Accelerator, Syngenta can take an incredible amount of data and pair it with genomics technology to create hybrid advancements, faster than historical breeding. 

“I can take that data and take what it’s related to and how that performs in certain environments to create a list of predictions with 50% accuracy without testing,” Jones said. “The data we collect and our ability to use it is a huge step-change in breeding. I can predict parents for future breeding populations, the progeny of those populations. So, instead of testing 200 progeny I can narrow it down to 50, which expands how I can test these products in the end.” 

All said, the data technology Syngenta breeders use, paired with their unique insights into processing facility trait needs means they’ve taken a 10-year breeding process and reduced it to six to seven years. 

“That’s where you get genetic gain – the biggest component of the genetic gain equation [how we make better varieties], is time,” Jones added. “The gain we make by avoiding that loss of time or product cycling is exponential.” 


Sweet Corn Around the World 

Agriculture is a global business – regardless of location, everyone around the world needs to eat. Sweet corn provides a nutritious option for consumers. 

Sweet corn is very important worldwide, but it’s used very differently depending on what region you’re in,” McKay said. “In America, we eat it canned, frozen, fresh, really a lot of different configurations and we’ve been eating it for a long time. In other cultures, it’s a relatively new crop but growing in popularity. 

“Mexico and Brazil are fairly new to sweet corn and starting to eat a lot, and Europe eats it much like North America – on the cob or processed in cans or freezer bags as a side dish.” 

Sweet corn processing ability and needs vary around the world. In some Asian markets, for example, processors still shell the cobs by hand before continuing to canning or freezing. Corn is sometimes consumed differently, too. 

"In many Asian countries it’s eaten as a side dish, sometimes relish and raw fresh corn. But you’ll also see it eaten baby corn,” says Steve Muldoon, APAC Regional Portfolio Manager. “Right now, baby corn is just underripe field corn but we’re breeding better, sweeter varieties. So far, everyone has been impressed with the new hybrids.” 

No matter how it’s eaten or used, it’s an important crop and one Syngenta is committed to supporting. Whether it’s through a dedicated breeding program to protect yield potential in the field, or the Yield Accelerator that teaches researchers more about how to create hybrids that perform in processing facilities, the future for sweet corn is bright.