Progressing crop research to impact at scale

by Marco Ferroni | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Friday, 10 October 2014 12:45 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Faster and widespread adoption of new crop varieties that can raise yields in developing countries is crucial for food security

Strengthening global food security requires changes in many areas. They include better infrastructure, education and governance, as well as specifically agricultural improvements. More efficient soil and water management, for example, help make farming more productive today and stay climate-smarter tomorrow.

Another crucial shift is faster widespread adoption of new crop varieties that can raise yields in developing countries. Progressing the results of research and breeding through to millions of smallholders is essential. Today, however, plant science often fails to create impact at scale. There are several reasons for this, but solutions are within reach. The private sector plays a central role throughout.

Commercial companies, by their nature, want to take products to customers. Because they compete with other companies, they are a constant driver of innovation, both in the products themselves and in how these best reach end-users. Seed companies are no exception.

The public sector is often successful at R&D. But what really counts is “R, D & D” – where the second D stands for Delivery. National or international institutes produce new traits and germplasm with great skill, but so far at least, delivery has not been their strong point.

However, for private companies to use their strength here to the full, a number of elements have to be in place. Most of these depend on governments’ ability to provide an enabling environment – so even where the private sector is center-stage, the public sector should never leave the theater!

Four elements are particularly important if crop research is to achieve impact at scale. In chronological order during “R, D & D”, these are Intellectual Property management, seed trade regulation, support for new seed companies and the empowerment of farmers.

Good IP management and licensing ensure the contractually agreed transfer of genetic material from breeders to trialing partners and local seed providers. Breeders in developing countries, particularly in Africa, mostly work in the public sector; the trialists and seed providers are increasingly private enterprises.

The seed market requires appropriate policy-making and regulation. There must be clear and enforceable rules on variety release and registration. Quality and certification standards also form part of the regulatory environment, but they must always promote excellence, not hinder delivery. For seed market regulation to be more of a help than a hindrance, much greater international harmonization is needed. Harmonization includes acceptance of trial data from one country by regulators elsewhere. Often, cross-border seed agreements are either missing or only exist on paper. Where properly implemented, the benefits can be considerable, as our Foundation’s work with potato seed in Kenya and Tanzania has recently demonstrated.

To flourish, start-ups in any line of business worldwide need support. New local and regional seed companies in developing countries are no exception. They require technical and commercial advice, and access to finance. Governments can do much to create and nurture the necessary enabling environment.

Much of what applies to up-and-coming seed companies also holds true for their customers. Smallholders, too, need access to credit, and to agronomic and other advice. To foster demand for seed, they also need insurance, as this increases their readiness to invest. Farmers are, by profession, permanent risk managers, and smallholders are least able to carry that risk alone. Buying new seed is a risk: farmers need to put money on the table long before they know what that year’s harvest will earn them. Insurance lowers the threshold of their very understandable reluctance.

To increase the chance of a successful harvest, farmers also need access to inputs other than seed. The priority list depends on smallholders’ local situation, but they typically include fertilizer, and often irrigation or mechanization. To turn all these inputs into profit, farmers then need access to properly functioning markets, and the organizational advice to maximize their earnings.

There is also another vital aspect of farmer empowerment: breeding crops to meet their needs. It is essential for food security that public programs generate more climate-resilient varieties that farmers and their customers want to use. ‘Demand-driven’ plant breeding puts customers at the heart of R&D. It involves them even before the scientific work starts. These customers are not only farmers, but also their direct partners and other stakeholders along the value chain.

Some government programs include farmer participation in variety development. However, typically the public sector focuses less on demand than companies do. For successful demand-driven breeding, public and private sector experts need to share knowledge and solve problems together. Public-private partnerships provide an ideal framework. Delivering new varieties that farmers and their customers really want is probably the single most important prerequisite for achieving impact at scale.

Dr. Marco Ferroni is Executive Director of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.

As the 2014 Borlaug Dialogue takes place October 15-17 in Des Moines, Iowa, the World Food Prize Foundation and CGIAR Fund are co-hosting an online, high-level op-ed series titled The Greatest Challenge in Human History: Sustainably Feeding 9 Billion People By 2050. This will highlight how agricultural research and development are not only tied to food security and nutrition, but that they are also central to achieving many of the forthcoming UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Read more: 

How can we sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050? - Kenneth Quinn, World Food Prize Foundation and Jonathan Wadsworth, CGIAR

The future of food and farming depends on climate action today - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO, Kanayo F. Nwanze, International Fund for Agricultural Development and Ertharin Cousin, WFP

The face of hunger is not partisan - Rajiv Shah, USAID

Delivering on Norman Borlaug’s call to action - Andrew Youn, One Acre Fund and Tony Kalm, CGIAR Fund

Elevating civil society from advisers to partners for a food secure world  - Tony Hall,  Alliance to End Hunger

New wheat breeds can help avert food security disaster - Sanjaya Rajaram, 2014 World Food Prize Laureate

Rising to "the greatest challenge in human history" - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO 

Achieving zero hunger with help from smallholder farmers - Ertharin Cousin, WFP 

Tending the future - Pamela Anderson, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Sustained investment in global agricultural research key to feeding 9 bln people sustainably - Gebisa Ejeta, Purdue University

Africa will feed 9 billion by 2050 - Pedro A. Sanchez, Earth Institute, Columbia University