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The 2019 Access to Seeds Index for Global Seed Companies is made up of 13 leading global companies in field crop and vegetable seeds as well as regional leaders with a global presence. The insights below are based on publicly available information and information disclosed by the companies on engagement.
Only six global seed companies state that nutritional value is a target for their breeding programs. Although this is a slight improvement on the four companies identified in 2016, increased yield and tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses once again have the highest priority.
For vegetables specifically, shelf life is considered an important breeding target. The top four targets – increased yield, tolerance to abiotic and biotic stresses and shelf life – are relevant for farmers’ profitability. Breeding targets with relevance to consumption – local tastes and cultural preferences as well as nutritional value – are mentioned least often as a breeding priority.
Similarly, when marketing their seeds to farmers, global seed companies put most emphasis on traits related to crop growth: resistance to pests and diseases and maturity rate. Drought tolerance is highlighted about 50% of the time. Often this relates to special varieties aimed at farmers in specific regions.
For vegetables, culinary or cultural preferences and shelf life, which are seen as less relevant for field crops, are emphasized. Although slightly higher for vegetables than for field crops, nutritional value is the characteristic emphasized least in marketing.
Companies such as Bejo, East-West Seed, Enza Zaden and Rijk Zwaan state that they are contributing to nutrition outcomes by offering a diverse portfolio of vegetable crops. As vegetables are well-known sources of vitamins and minerals, they play an important role in a healthy diet.
Rijk Zwaan is part of the Amsterdam Initiative against Malnutrition (AIM), which aims to improve food and nutrition security in Tanzania, in part by increasing the availability of nutritious vegetables for consumers. Limagrain emphasizes portfolio diversity – including its breeding activities for local vegetable crops – as a means to improve access to nutritious foods.
Enhancing the nutritional value of field crops (or staple crops) can be an effective strategy in regions where people suffer from malnutrition caused by a lack of access to a diverse diet. Several companies are active in this area in collaboration with dedicated research institutes or projects.
Bayer is partnering with HarvestPlus on the development of biofortified millet, by participating in multi-location hybrid and parent seed trials for high-iron lines that have the potential to address the iron requirements of rural communities. Corteva Agriscience’s Africa Biofortified Sorghum project, in partnership with Africa Harvest, Nigeria’s Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), employs transgenic techniques to increase levels of vitamin A, iron and zinc in sorghum.
The Syngenta Foundation is collaborating with HarvestPlus to improve the nutritional value of staple foods. Through conventional breeding, HarvestPlus has developed and released an orange-colored sweet potato in Uganda and Mozambique that is rich in vitamin A. Although the Syngenta Foundation facilitates partnerships that develop crops with improved nutritional value, the company itself does not report developing varieties with such traits.
Although forage crops are currently not in the scope of the index, one approach to improving the nutritional value of food through forage crops is worth mentioning. Advanta reports conducting ‘feeding trials’ with cows, which were shown to improve milk production and the nutritional value of the milk.
As such, these trials, which were undertaken in collaboration with the Indian College of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry, suggest that Advanta’s forage crops contain higher levels of crude protein and energy, resulting in a higher milk yield compared to local forage crops. Advanta aims to raise awareness among farmers that using these crops can have a positive return on investment, for the reasons outlined above.