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.