Better market intelligence to drive the future of genetic innovation in crops

While the technology for breeding better crop varieties has enabled veritable leaps and bounds over the past three decades, adoption rates for improved crops have lagged behind the hopes and expectations of the research for development community.

Indeed, as agriculturalists look toward 2030 and the world’s quest to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the issue of seed systems and improved adoption of new varieties loom as the thorniest challenge in the coming decades.

Last week, the FAO sponsored The Global Conference on Green Development of Seed Industries to engage in focused dialogues on how best to make quality seeds of preferred productive, nutritious and resilient crop varieties available to farmers for better production, better nutrition, and a better environment.

In a side session chaired by Emmanuel Okogbenin, the Director of Programme Development and Commercialization for the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the need for genetic innovation to improve crops was made clear. In 2020 alone, about 40% of the world’s crop losses were caused by pests, resulting in a loss of approximately USD 70 billion. Meanwhile, malnutrition and food insecurity due to climate change impacts continue to imperil the lives of small farming families around the world.

“It is clear that farmers need more productive, and more resilient crops that meet their needs, yet it is only when seeds are planted in farmer’s fields, sold at the market, taken to large urban centers, or served on consumers’ plates, that they can deliver their intended impact on the ground,” said Barbara Wells, the Director General for the International Potato Center and recently-appointed Director for Genetic Innovation in One CGIAR.

“A high-yielding variety of a crop may be a hit with men farmers as it brings good returns at the market,” Wells continued in her keynote remarks. “However, women farmers, who are often tasked with gathering firewood and preparing household meals, may reject it if it has a long cooking time or does not have the right texture or aroma for a traditional recipe, or if their children won’t eat it.”

The answer to this challenge lie in the realm of market intelligence – research that draws from several disciplines to develop product profiles for improved crop varieties that meet the needs and priorities of the broadest swath of people possible. In this way, genetic gains are delivered into fields (in the form of better nutrition or drought-resistance) and markets develop which encourage farmers to grow and sell these new varieties.

One sterling example of successful breeding combined with appropriate market research is the case of orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP) in Africa. Maria Andrade, the Leader for Sweetpotato Breeding for the International Potato Center, recounted a ten-year effort to increase vitamin-A levels of OFSP through biofortification while also finding means to deliver more of this crop through off-hand products.

“We started with product profiles that gave us a full picture of what men and women wanted in sweetpotato and we worked quickly to breed that crop,” Andrade said. “But eating OFSP at home was not enough. We also used market research to develop a sweetpotato puree and sweetpotato chips that were healthier and that would be readily bought by families.”

Vivienne Anthony, a Senior Scientific Advisory at the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, said that better market intelligence would only be the first step in creating a system that builds market research into all breeding work.

“Demand-led breeding needs to be encouraged by educators in the universities and the national agricultural research services in the countries we serve,” Anthony said. “It’s important to develop the next generation of breeders to have strong belief in the need for product profiles. This way we can change the perception of breeding from a long on-going cost and to a profitable investment for governments and the private sector.” 

Ian Barker, the Director of the Global Potato Agri-Food System Program at the International Potato Center, provided some more helpful context for the discussion by isolating four key entry point for improving seed systems and new variety adoption in the developing world. 

  1. Design fewer varieties better targeted for farmers and consumers
  2. Communicate specific demand for seed and link seed producers to breeders
  3. Lower the cost of business through better seed policy
  4. Lower the cost of seed production through seed production research 

By focusing on these four objectives, Barker said it would be much easier to then capitalize on the interest of private sector partners who have the resources to scale up distribution and contribute marketing efforts to create greater acceptance of new varieties.