All companies have extensive breeding programs for a broad number of crops. However, regionally based seed companies lead the way, with breeding programs that include a focus on local crops, prioritize smallholder-relevant traits and are more supportive of agricultural biodiversity.
Through breeding, new varieties can become available that can help smallholder farmers to increase their yields, are more resilient to changing weather conditions, and, resistant to attacks from plant pests and diseases, among others.
Plant breeding is concentrated in India, where 18 of the 24 companies are active. Thailand follows, with eleven companies actively breeding. Global companies have the most breeding locations in the region. Bayer, East-West Seed, Corteva Agriscience and Limagrain each breed in four countries, with India, Indonesia and Thailand in common.
No breeding activities were reported in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia. Punjab Seed Corporation and National Seeds Corporation deliver varieties improved by national research institutes to farmers but do not engage in breeding activities themselves. Lal Teer Seed is the only index company that breeds in Nepal.
The age of the newest variety in a portfolio is an indicator of whether companies are dedicating time and resources to maintaining a crop. Regional and global companies both market varieties from their own breeding programs that are less than three years old, showing that companies are continuously introducing new products to the markets they serve.
On average, global seed companies have released new varieties for 66% of their crops in the past three years. For regional companies, this figure is 53%. However, 91% of the varieties in the portfolio of regional companies are also relatively young at less than five years old.
Variety trials are an important component of plant breeding. Companies trial varieties to determine where existing and new varieties can potentially be utilized. Many companies were found to include research institute varieties and/or varieties from other companies in their variety trials. Global companies not originating in the region can do more to prioritize testing in the region. On average, they perform variety trials in a quarter of the countries where they are present.
On average, regionally rooted companies perform variety trials in over half of the countries where they are present. The leader is East-West Seed, which performs variety trials in over 75% of the countries where it is present and covers all three activities, namely testing varieties from its own breeding programs, from research institutes and from other companies.
The improvement of local crops can demonstrate a commitment to agrobiodiversity conservation and use by stewarding foods of regional importance. Regional companies perform well in developing improved varieties of local crops, both field crops, including mustard, mung bean and lentil, and vegetables, such as yardlong bean, kangkong and tinda.
Most regional companies also breed for specific traits, including local tastes and cultural preferences such as grain and cooking quality in rice and ease of picking/harvesting. Regionally significant pests and diseases are a focus for both regional and global companies, with companies breeding for traits such as resistance to the chili leaf curl virus and the tomato leaf curl New Delhi virus, which is transmitted by whitefly (Bemisia tabaci).
Companies work with research institutes to develop traits useful for smallholder farmers in index countries, such as improved performance, yield, low-external inputs, and abiotic and biotic stress tolerance. Through these collaborations, seed companies can access regionally significant germplasm and rapidly increase adoption. BRAC Seed and Agro Enterprise works closely with 21 national and international seed production and research organizations, including the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), with goals such as enhancing the functioning of the crop value chain and increased nutritional contribution of the crops under development. This multitude of partnerships reveals a strategic approach, whereby partnerships are geared toward delivering improved agricultural technologies to farmers. Metahelix collaborates with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and HarvestPlus on a project to improve the micronutrient content of millet, specifically iron, by conducting trials for ICRISAT. Global companies report that of the varieties released in the region, 4% comes from public research. For regional companies, 20% of their portfolio comes from public research.
Feedback from local consumers, traders and smallholder farmers is important for linking smallholder tastes and preferences to company breeding programs. Several companies, such as Nuziveedu Seeds and Corteva Agriscience, incorporate smallholder farmer feedback gathered at evaluation trials and field days into their breeding programs
Bayer partners with Plant Breeders Without Borders and Indonesia’s Bogor University, which facilitates 30 smallholder farmers and agricultural students to develop their own varieties of Bambara groundnut and local vegetables. While companies report that farmers inform their product development, few companies disclose the methods by which this information is collected.
In each measurement areas activities or approaches are identified that stand out or can be considered innovative in the industry. They contribute to the score of a company through leadership indicators.
East-West Seed is notable for its exceptionally strong breeding focus on improved local crops – 12 in total.
In addition, through its yearly academic programming, the company sends breeders from the Philippines and Thailand to UC Davis in California, USA, to steward next-generation breeders in the region.
Namdhari Seeds receives recognition for itscollaborative breeding project that involves women smallholder farmers in testing new varieties of okraand selecting hybrids suited to their needs.
Ramdhari Seedsisalsothe only company to describe a project integrating women smallholder farmer knowledge into its breeding efforts.