Seed Innovation to Deliver Farmer Prosperity Month on Agrilinks
Technology delivered in the form of new and improved seed is one of the best means of delivering prosperity to smallholder farmers, creating greater resilience for food security and livelihoods, and adapting to and mitigating climate change. These benefits do not require behavioral change — farmers have been sowing seeds for the past 10,000 years. So this month, February 2023, we are highlighting seed systems: Seed Innovation to Deliver Farmer Prosperity.
Delivering seed innovation to farmers could not come at a better time. The year 2022 was momentous for both good and bad reasons. Putin’s war in Ukraine aggravated an already fragile global food security situation, which was met by emergency food aid and other resourcing and commitments to strengthen agricultural productivity in countries most in need. In November, the United Nations Climate Conference, known widely as “COP27,” included reaffirmation of commitments to limit temperature rise, increased support of finance, technology, and capacity strengthening in developing countries, and created specific funding for loss and damage to countries most vulnerable to climate change disasters. In December, 190 countries approved a United Nations agreement at “COP 15” in Montreal to protect 30 percent of the planet’s lands and oceans by 2030 (“30 x 30”) and includes multiple efforts to protect biodiversity.
To meet these challenges and deliver impact at scale, we will need all the technology and tools available to us. Greater productivity on land currently under cultivation is one of the best ways of achieving “30 x 30.” New varieties, adapted to current environmental conditions, will improve nutrition, prosperity and climate adaptation, and they will improve resilience in the face of regional conflict.
Yet delivering new and improved crop varieties to the hands of smallholder farmers on a broad scale, on a regular basis, has proved challenging. The average age of a maize hybrid in the United States is about 3.5 years. Throughout Africa, varieties of many crops cultivated by farmers are 10 to 20 years old. Vegetatively propagated crop varieties, like cassava, may be decades older. These outdated varieties were developed for a climate and cropping environment that no longer exists.
This is why USAID’s Feed the Future programs and partners have been striving to create quality seeds of improved crop varieties in order to deliver higher yields, improved quality and nutrition and greater prosperity to smallholder farmers. While progress is being made, we — as a community concerned about the promise of better seeds — have not seen the impacts that were anticipated. Research and breeding programs may not have the latest technologies to achieve shorter and fewer breeding cycles or be as predictive and efficient as they could be. New varieties often do not reach smallholder farmers. Seed companies and farmers may not know the benefits, traits and attributes of new varieties. Early generation seed (EGS) breeders seed, foundation seed, and scale up to certified seed is often a missing link. In crops where highly productive hybrids and the private sector dominate in North and South America, open-pollinated varieties remain the only option to African smallholder farmers.
Progress is being made. “Genomic technologies,” like genome sequencing, marker assisted breeding, genome-wide association selection and genome editing are becoming more affordable and accessible for any crop and region of the world. Some African countries have made considerable improvements to their seed systems since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ghana, Nigeria and Rwanda have all passed new seed laws and regulatory frameworks. Many other countries are making similar advancements. Intellectual property and plant breeders rights are increasingly recognized as key means, adopted by national systems, to incentivize the scaling up of quality seeds of improved varieties. Providers of EGS are being created, sometimes through public–private partnerships. Seed law harmonization across country borders, a remaining challenge to vibrant seed systems, is gaining momentum. Seed providers, both public and private, are realizing the value of improved marketing and information flow about new varieties. Seed licensing agreements, respect of intellectual property rights, variety protection and potential for royalties back to national programs are more evident. Hybrid maize continues to gain traction, especially in East and Southern Africa, via involvement from the private sector.
During the month of February, through blogs from experts around the world and an exciting virtual panel discussion, USAID will feature and discuss the challenges to greater progress, while also celebrating the great progress being made. First, the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security has instituted a Product Life Cycle approach to agriculture research management in conjunction with our Feed the Future Innovation Labs. Second, the Seeds2B approach to research hand off of publicly funded varieties to private firms has been piloted with substantial uptake of these varieties. Third, approaches to seed marketing innovation have been developed and are now available to seed companies for their planning use.