Hybrid Corn

“Hybrid? You mean like a Prius!?” The Boringest Development

Hybrid Seed is the boringest of all development interventions. You can sense people from Tampa to Timbuktu dozing off the second you bring it up. Hybrid seed is so boring, it’s basically fallen out of our collective consciousness. Just yesterday, a commenter here was accusing me of championing GMOs because I wrote something nice about hybrids!

When they were first introduced in America, way back in the 1930s, hybrid seeds set off a kind of productivity earthquake.

So, back to basics: Hybrid Seed has nothing to do with GMOs. Arguably the greatest triumph of turn-of-the-(last)-century agri-science, hybrid seeds are created by carefully controlling plant breeding processes to generate seed lines that are exceptionally productive and adapted to a given site’s soil, climate, and pest conditions.

It’s the sort of plodding, old fashioned biotech that was already old news by the time your grandpa was in high school. And yet, deeply un-newsworthy as the technique is, Hybrid Seeds – coupled with very small amounts of fertilizer – can more than double smallholder yields literally from one planting season to the next. (We have the RCTs to prove it, too.) Hey, they don’t call it the Green Revolution for nothing.

When they were first introduced in America, way back in the 1930s, hybrid seeds set off a kind of productivity earthquake. Within a decade of introduction, farmers who had been stuck harvesting maybe 700 or 900 kg. of grain per hectare for the last umpteen generations were bringing in harvests at 3, 4, even 5 and 6 tonnes per hectare.

This video (tellingly, the best explanation I could find on YouTube was made 23 years ago) tells the story well:

Hybrid seed is such old news, they’re sort of invisible. We all know that the new trendy thing to worry about is transgenic seed, and we will not be denied a good fight about that.

And yet for most of the Bottom Billion, the almighty rumble over transgenics is largely beside the point. GMOs are what you want if you’re harvesting 8 tonnes of maize per Hectare and you want to harvest 10.

But if you’re using grain you saved last year for seed and harvesting 750 kg. in a hectare and you need to triple that quickly so your family can eat all year, that’s an entirely academic discussion.

As a solution to the problems of the bottom billion, hybrid seed is perfectly obvious. It just happens to be a boring solution, so vast swathes of the development community sort of forgot about it.

The world’s poorest farmers are one biotech revolution behind. The techniques it takes to develop hybrid seed lines are old hat in the West, but go to Mali, or Burundi or Nepal and you’ll find national agricultural research institutes that barely have the resources to create new high quality hybrid lines. When new diseases arise, speed in creating and propagating a resistant new hybrid is of the essence, but where agricultural research institutions and regulatory agencies are weak, understaffed, corrupt (or all three), key processes can be horrendously slow.

More worrying still, the market links that take seed out of the lab and into the field are often buggy. For every Josephine Okot marketing high quality hybrids to Ugandan smallholders, there are three hucksters getting rich selling fake “hybrid” seeds that are no such thing.

The challenges to getting the right seed to the right farmer aren’t small, and they aren’t to be underestimated. But deep down, we’re still talking 1930s biotech. The problem is far from insoluble. It’s just a matter to getting down to business and doing it.

9 thoughts on ““Hybrid? You mean like a Prius!?” The Boringest Development”

  1. In the 1970s, I went to CIMMYT in Mexico City. http://www.cimmyt.org/en/

    Basically, people placed seeds onto a conveyer belt. Then, peasant-y looking people sitting along the sides of the belt picked out the biggest ones, examined them quickly, and threw the chosen ones into one of several buckets.

    We were told that they were choosing robust seeds to strengthen the stalks of the next crop of grain plants, so that more productive plants had an armature to keep the cereal from falling to the ground.

    How many countries in Africa have a CIMMYT or clone?

    1. Amazing. CIMMYT is still going strong all these years later.

      These days, the Gates Foundation finances the hell out of these kinds of organizations. They exist in almost all countries in Africa, but my sense is that capabilities vary pretty widely. The best of ’em – basically the ones that work with AGRA – seem to do pretty good work.

      One reason I started this blog is that I want to learn so much more about these types of outfits…

    2. As Francisco said, labs / organizations focusing on seed selection are pretty widespread in Africa and worldwide (whether national or as part of CGIAR, like CIMMYT, http://www.cgiar.org/ )

      I had a chance to work a bit with Seeds of Life in East Timor, a joint AusAID / Timorese Ministry of Ag & Forests project ( http://seedsoflifetimor.org/ ) tasked with setting up a national seed system post-independence. They also focus on hybrid varieties, yet are often accused of championing GMOs by people misunderstanding the differentiation Francisco described in this post. I recommend checking them out if you are interested in setting-up seed systems in developing countries.

      Of course, someone could argue that the term “genetically modified” does apply, as hybrid seeds are “genetically engineered through selection”… but then, aren’t we all genetically modified?

  2. Not often noted how during the industrial revolution there was, speciallly in Brittain a revolution in animal breeding by smart breeders who slowly but intelligently bred the best kind of meat and dairy cattle , chicken, hogs, sheep producing new animal breeds which where a quantum leap better at producing meat , milk eggs etc than those that preceded them . They did it slowly and purposefully and dodgelly and with little outside help, and the results were extraordinary !! If you look at a modern catalogue of the best animal breeds today you find that they were created by british breeders during the XVIII and XIX centuries . Same thing later happened with vegetables, but now the creation of new varieties of crops is the result of a much more institutionalized effort . The results however have been and will continue to be prodigious .

  3. I work in Seeds of Life which assists the Timor-Leste Government in setting up a national seed system. This involves researching new varieties, scaling up quality seed production and delivering seed to trained community seed production groups. Although the varieties we test have a history in hybrid research we don’t actually promote the use hybrid seeds in a developing country setting. Farmers in the developed world use hybrid seeds but usually buy them every year to get the benefit of the first cross. At Seeds of Life we test a number of open-pollinated varieties that already have disease resistance bred into them. We test aspects such as yield, weevil resistance, taste and texture (cultural preferences). Its important to understand the difference between crossing two varieties to deliver a hybrid seed and crossing two varieties, selecting, growing a number of generations to deliver a stable, open-pollinated variety. Hybrid seed will deliver higher yields but mean that the farmer must buy fresh hybrid seed every year. Stable, open-pollinated varieties can deliver higher yields than local varieties but mean that the farmer can keep the seed and grow it year after year. This may seem like a semantic difference to some but its a big difference to farmers out in the mountains and I think its important to keep the distinction clear.

  4. People are different and places are different. It would seem fair to include from this post and the comments that SADC nations are far ahead of other parts of Africa in the use of hybrids. They were developed the best part of 50 years ago in SADC. They were low yield busters and the people quickly moved to using them as the preferred option.
    Not all hybrids suit everywhere – even excessive altitude can make a hybrid less productive than say 500m nearer see level. But that is the job of the seed houses to sort out and they do it in SADC. I am not keen at all on government research stations. They are slow, not in it to make a profit and hence pretty poor at outputs. CIMMYT has the same problems but less than government structures.
    OPV are fine but there is no record of them producing anything like hybrids. Fine, you save on the cost of seed but you will lose half the yield which is a lot more than the cost of seed. I sometimes wonder if this pushing of OPV instead of hybrids is really more of the mother earth nonsense. Save the butterflies even though it keeps people hungry. I think the opposition to GMO has that at the back of it. Although, in Europe, it is probably just anti-Americanism. But there should be no place for it in food short and poverty stricken communities. Give them the best yielding seed in the world -hybrids or gmo. I think some would also ban the hybrids if they could.
    A boring thought is based on my limited knowledge of East Africa particularly the Lake Victoria area. There is large rainfall there compared to SADC semi-arid areas. Yet in SADC semi arid areas there are hybrid seeds sold that yield equivalent of 12-17MT per hectare under irrigation. The rainfall in many parts of East Africa is equivalent to irrigation. So some experiments are needed and that seed distributed if suitable. Try SC727, Seedco, for starters. If it is suitable i.e. not to much msv etc a person with a bit of manure, fertiliser and lime should easily get 4mt from an acre never mind an hectare. I think that would be above the Kenyan average. I was there in December but I didn’t think much of their maize. Neither did the folks from SADC with me. We thought that the problem was soil fertility or the seed. Maybe both. Both are easily fixed. It is a piece of cake. One aspect of being boring is let’s try and not make easily solved things difficult. I think another aspect of being boring is to say look there are people in other parts of Africa if they had your rain would be laughing all the way to the barn.

  5. By the way there is a CIMMYT about 100km from here. Full of very learned people but why not put them in the research labs of Seedco, Pannar, Pioneer or Monsanto. i.e. subsidise the seed house research programs with CIMMYT staff and get that seed to the market place. But they are not all seed breeders.
    Also, if you go to an agriculture shop in Kisii then you can see the difference between SADC and Kenya. Guy in Kisii means well but compare it to an agriculture shop in a similar town with a million people around in the rural areas in a SADC area then you will see the difference. It also shows the difference in knowledge of these 1 million people in Kisii and their SADC equivalents. I told a guy there get some agricultural lime. He had not even heard of it but in SADC you can buy it in any self respecting agricultural shop. These people need help. Tip: if you can’t afford fertiliser then buy 100kg agricultural lime and mix with 2MT of kraal manure or compost and put it on. Yummy, yummy says the soil. Hap tip to a agricultural shop in SADC. Solution to the above point that these people need help:
    Bill, if your are listening, subsidise seed production in professional seed houses. Or better still start a seed house company yourself. In Microsoft you didn’t employ research houses to develop windows. You employed people to do so. We would still be waiting for 95 if you had given it to a research station. In other words buy Monsanto and move it to East Africa and run it as a charity under the foundation. Then set up the East African Agricultural Company and retail all standard and non-standard products right through the region in every urban area with over 25,000 population and 100,000 in adjacent rural areas. Advertise on Safaricom, etc. Run information classes every week at shops, in the press, etc. It is actually all about management. Starting capital $10,000,000. I am buying in at 0,01 percent of initial stock which I think is $1000. I don’t expect a seat on the Board.
    I suppose the point is there are too many ngos and not enough good businesses. In Africa the GDP percentage of agriculture is high, the persons who make a living from agriculture is a high percentage also and the businesses operating in agriculture are of a poor standard. This seriously impacts on food productivity. Imagine the Kansas farms without Monsanto etc. Total waste of time. Hence lack of food and money will be eliminated or substantially reduced by agricultural business improvement.

    Hybrids and GMO are the seed for the African small holder.

    Send for Delta Mike or the lady from Gwanda.

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