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Opinion: Environment, Market Access

The Importance of the Seed Industry to Feed the World and Eradicate Hunger

Alice Ingabire Alice Ingabire

Alice Ingabire, Access to Seeds Index Lead at the World Benchmarking Alliance, discusses the latest Access to Seeds Index and its evaluation of the seed industry in South and South-East Asia.  

The goal of achieving ‘Zero Hunger’ must remain a priority if we want to achieve sustainable development. As the world’s population grows – now projected to increase by two billion people by 2050 – smallholder farmers, the primary food producers in developing countries must increase food production to end hunger and meet future food demands. Therefore, engaging the private sector at the very start of the value chain, for example with seed companies, is essential to producing sufficient food and eradicate hunger in most of the developing countries.

In November 2021, the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) published the third Access to Seeds Index assessing 67 global and regional seed companies on their efforts to reach smallholder farmers with quality seeds of improved varieties. By identifying leadership and good practices, we aim to provide an evidence base for the discussion on where and how the seed industry can step up its efforts.

We evaluated 31 companies selling vegetable and field crops essential for nutrition in 14 countries in South and South-East Asia. Whilst the seeds industry shows recognition and a responsive approach towards access to seeds for smallholders, our research shows that company performance still can improve further.

A need to diversify offerings and secure labour rights

In terms of geography, we identified the countries that attracted the highest number of company investment around seed accessibility as India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Pakistan. Other countries such as Afghanistan, Laos, and Cambodia should not be overlooked, and more partnerships and regulations should be encouraged in the seed industry to achieve better practices.

Overall, the highly research-driven industry tends to release new varieties in diverse company portfolios. For example, vegetables are the primary business driver for many seed companies while rice and maize are the most popular field crops. As the index identified in 2019, companies rarely offer protein-rich pulses such as beans (dry), chickpea, pigeon pea, soya bean, and groundnuts in the region.

In addition, companies give smallholder farmers various choices of seed types. In particular, globally active companies tend to offer more hybrids while regional companies offer both hybrids and open pollinated varieties (OPVs). To ensure smallholder farmer autonomy, we expect companies to offer smallholder farmers a wider choice of both hybrids and OPVs that respond to needs and suitability.

The new Index also highlights that in seed production activities, companies often lack adequate systems to respect social and labour rights. With a high prevalence of these prominent issues in the seed industry, seed companies need to step up their efforts to guarantee the workers’ labour rights across all countries.

Smallholder farmers, the primary food producers in developing countries must increase food production to end hunger and meet future food demands, writes the author. Photo credit: Pexels

Best practices – aligning businesses to smallholder farmer success

Based on the index ranking, a number of examples of best practices were also found. For instance, in governance and strategy research, East-West Seed – which topped the index – has a supervisory board that oversees their access to seeds strategy implemented by the Chief Executive Officer and managing board. In addition, the company performs well in industry engagement practices such as seed health testing protocols, living wages, and health and safety discussions with stakeholders while integrating these outcomes into their seeds strategy for smallholder farmers.

East-West Seeds also leads in research and development with its own breeding programs and includes local and traditional crops important in the region. Furthermore, the company offers capacity building and education on the latest technologies and breeding practices for local staff.

Other companies with best practice examples include Advanta, which ranked second on the index. The company contributes its genetic resources to projects developing varieties that are tailored to local conditions and crop preferences of smallholder farmers in the region. And Bayer – which ranked third – is another leading name in the sector. It provides training on best management and agriculture practices, including safe use of pesticides, compliance with international trade rules and access to local partnerships and outreach efforts. Finally, India’s Mahyco Grow is an interesting case study of a company that jumped from the nineteenth position on the 2019 index to the fourth in 2021. This is due to its improved transparency in communicating their practices, especially showing great example in marketing and sales that safeguards the quality and safety of their seeds for smallholder farmers.

As the seeds industry is positioned at the beginning of the food value chain, it holds a unique position to help improve food security and nutrition. Photo credit: Pexels

Taking steps to strengthen the seed industry

Recognising such good practices is a key step in setting clear expectations and examples for companies to align their business models and operations to smallholder farmer success. In addition, companies with low performance on the index due to lack of disclosure, can set up their efforts in transparency to allow peer learning and accountability to realising the full potential of increasing smallholder farmer productivity.

As the seeds industry is positioned at the beginning of the food value chain, it can substantially improve food and nutrition security for our growing global population in the countries that need it most. A series of small changes starting at the industry level can, over time, contribute to the transformation of our global food and agriculture system to ensure a sustainable future for everyone.

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