Why we all need farmers to have access to better seeds

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Michael Keller, Secretary General, International Seed Federation


  • We need to incentivize innovation, alleviate market inefficiencies, and protect vital genetic resources to combat global hunger.
  • Too few of the world’s farmers can access improved, quality seeds, which offer higher yields and more resistance to drought.
  • Improved seeds can also help tackle climate change and enable land restoration.
  • Norman Borlaug is said to have saved a billion lives. His revolutionary new wheat varieties led to soaring yields in Mexico, Pakistan, India, and kickstarted the green revolution. By preventing widespread famine and hunger, his work won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

    But 50 years later, the human population has more than doubled and the numbers of hungry are growing again. On current trends, global hunger will touch 840 million people by 2030, from 690 million at present.

    Borlaug needed two decades to develop his new varieties but breeding has moved on since then. Today’s plant breeding combines the latest innovations in cell biology and genetics.

    Scientists can even pinpoint a single letter out of 16 billion in the DNA of wheat and switch it with another.

    Of course, the difference between then and now is night and day. The latest seed technologies mean that we can improve the full spectrum of food crops more precisely and efficiently than ever before. We can develop tastier, more nutritious tomatoes, disease resistant cocoa, low gluten wheat, high oleic peanuts, higher carotenoid content cassava, drought resistant maize, and so much more. When it comes to plant breeding we are truly on the brink of another revolution.

    But to combat global hunger we need more than that. We need to incentivize innovation, alleviate market inefficiencies, and protect vital genetic resources. We need to urgently bridge and align private sector incentives with public sector needs.

    With that in mind, more than 200 seed sector organizations signed a declaration this month, committing to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and – as part of that – calling for urgent collaboration between the public and private sectors.

    Signatories include family-owned, small and medium-sized enterprises, cooperatives and multinational companies such as Bayer, Syngenta, and Corteva, as well as national seed associations from all around the world.

    Too few of the world’s farmers can access improved, quality seeds, which offer higher yields and more resistance to drought. But it is in all our best interests that they can do so. In an ideal world, they would be able to make informed seed choices and build strong functioning seed systems that link formal and informal markets.

    Sustainable Development Goals

    Stronger partnerships

    And so the seed sector is keen to find new ways of cooperating with all partners, both public and private. We want to build synergies that increase our chances of mutually workable solutions. As part of the declaration, therefore, the seed industry welcomes the UN Food Systems Summit, set for September 2021, which we see as a vital opportunity to build common understanding and solutions.

    There is no time to lose. Increased food security will alleviate global hunger, and support progress in health, education, and political stability.

    Improved seeds can also help to tackle climate change. They can enable land restoration, rehabilitation, and conservation too.

    The declaration therefore is an expression of opportunity. Seeds are a cornerstone of our farming, and available technology allows us to improve our seeds faster and more precisely than ever before.

    Just like combatting the pandemic, tackling the current food crisis needs a concerted effort of public and private players. Can we really end world hunger without farmers having better access to improved seeds?

    Better conversations

    To progress, however, we will need constructive and honest conversations around plant breeding innovation. To unlock the benefits of seed innovation, governments must help to ensure that farmers have broad access to and choice of quality seeds. This will hold true even as we discuss new agricultural methods, including regenerative farming in general.

    Second, we need to discuss the ways in which we can improve the protection and use of genetic resources. Plant breeders need access to the broadest gene pools of crop species, the treasure chests which hold new solutions for better plants. Some genetic resources are stored in gene banks, but others grow in the wild. Some of these might either be inaccessible or vulnerable to extinction. And some are yet to be discovered.

    Third, in an ideal world, we can harmonize the regulation of international seed markets, including phytosanitary regulations (to control plant diseases) and intellectual property rights, which can help unlock the energy of the private sector. Food

    What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

    Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

    New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

    Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

    With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

    Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose’s impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

    In many countries – from Colombia to Vietnam – membership of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) has stimulated innovation, helping to build entire industries, ramp up crop yields, and improved livelihoods. Extending this convention beyond the current 76 countries will unlock local markets to benefit farmers and consumers alike.

    The seed sector has unlocked enormous advances in food production since the domestication of food crops. With climate change and population growth advancing on us, we must collaborate better to get ahead of this curve. This month’s declaration by the seed sector is another important step forward towards these shared goals. The seed sector is ready to engage.

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