Global seed companies are addressing climate change and nutrition needs but reach only 10% of the world’s small farmers

  • Access to Seeds Index shows seed industry making slow progress in key regions, including Africa
  • Thailand’s East-West Seed leads the way, followed by Syngenta and Bayer
  • Lack of crop diversity a major constraint; hybrid seed dominates while legumes largely ignored

Global seed companies are adapting their products to combat the impact of climate change and address nutrition needs. But limited access to quality seed in many emerging economies persists, with the global seed industry reaching just 10% of the world’s smallholder farmers, according to a new study.

The Access to Seeds Index 2019 – Global Seed Companies, published by the Amsterdam-based Access to Seeds Foundation, evaluates the activities of the 13 leading global seed companies to shine a light on where the industry can do more to raise smallholder farmer productivity, improve nutrition and mitigate the effects of climate change through the development and dissemination of quality seed.

The research shows that sales by the 13 global seed companies only reached around 47 million of the world’s 500 million smallholder farmers in 2017, and most investment went to a small number of countries, mostly in South and Southeast Asia. In these regions, global companies invest heavily in local seed business activities: 12 of them in breeding and 12 in production. In contrast, such activites are rare in Western and Central Africa, with only two companies investing in local breeding and one in production.

“Although the industry is making advances in
developing more nutritious and climate-resilient varieties, it’s clear that
more needs to be done,” said Ido Verhagen, executive director of the Access to
Seeds Index. “Material changes won’t be possible without reaching a greater
percentage of smallholder farmers, who account for the lion’s share – 80% – of
global food production.”

Shaping business models around the needs of
smallholder farmers can be profitable, as shown by East-West Seed, a Thailand-based
company that tops the index thanks to a strong performance across all areas
assessed. It has a unique smallholder-centric approach and a customer base made
up almost entirely of smallholders (98%). Switzerland’s Syngenta and Germany’s
Bayer are virtually tied in second and third place.

Reaching more smallholder farmers and directing
investment to other geographies are critical to tackle rising malnourishment. The number of people
suffering from hunger rose from 784 million in 2014 to nearly 821 million in
2017, in part because of a lack of access to nutritious food. However, only six
of the 13 global seed companies state that
nutritional value is a priority for their breeding programs. Although this is
higher than the four companies identified in 2016, when the first Access
to Seeds Index was published, progress is slow.

The importance of developing improved
varieties of seed, offering better nutritional value and supporting crop diversity
is echoed in a recent report by the EAT–Lancet Commission. The
global seed industry can do more to address this need for diversification by supplying
a larger number of crops and varieties, including legumes and local crops,
which are currently neglected.

The index also reveals a sharper focus on climate
change. Of the 13 companies evaluated, 12 emphasize that increased yields and
higher tolerance to climate and weather risks are essential when breeding. This
is reflected in increased breeding for climate-resilient field crops and
vegetable varieties since 2016.

By broadening their offering, including the provision
of farmer training and other services such as weather-based crop insurance,
seed companies have found new ways to help farmers adapt to changing climatic
conditions. Eight companies are now integrating sustainability strategies at the
corporate level, compared to three in 2016.

The Access to Seeds Index was established with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Government of the Netherlands. The global index is complemented by regional indexes that provide in-depth analysis of South and Southeast Asia, Eastern and Southern Africa, and Western and Central Africa.

“The private sector is essential for achieving food
and nutrition security, one of the major challenges outlined by the SDGs. With
the world’s population rising – and hunger with it – amid growing concerns
around the environmental impact of crop production, the role of the global seed
industry remains crucial if Zero Hunger (SDG 2) is to be achieved by 2030,” said Verhagen.

Read the Access to Seeds Index 2019 for Global Seed Companies

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