Which seed companies are looking out for Asia's smallholder farmers?

With the help of East-West Seed and support by Partners for Resilience and Cordaid, a community in Indonesia built an urban farm with select vegetables, choosing a fast-growing variety that generated both food and extra income. Photo by: Fleur Monasso / Climate Center / CC BY-NC

BANGKOK — With efforts to tackle malnutrition stalling in South and Southeast Asia, advocates are looking at ways to increase the productivity of smallholder farmers, who remain the major food providers. A new index ranks the seed companies serving small producers in the region — and finds that those shaping their models around farmers’ needs can be profitable. Still, the majority of smallholder farmers in the region aren’t being reached with training to accompany new seeds, the results show.

“Many [seed] varieties that can help farmers today are already available on the shelves of companies and research institutes. But they do not reach farmers ...”

— Ido Verhagen, executive director, Access to Seeds Foundation

Nearly half a billion people are hungry in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a new joint report from the World Food Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the World Health Organization. Smallholders provide up to 80 percent of the food supply in Asia, but adapting agriculture to new climate trends as well as raising production poses huge challenges and requires geographically tailored seed varieties.

Helping these farmers to access stress-tolerant seeds and grow more nutritious food is key to achieving food and nutrition security, according to Ido Verhagen, executive director at the Access to Seeds Foundation. A large part of the answer to the question of how to raise agricultural productivity will come from plant breeding, but the entire population will only benefit when the results of smart breeding reach smallholder farmers, he said.

“The U.N. says we need to invest in research,” Verhagen said. “Yes we have to do that, but we can also move faster. Many varieties that can help farmers today are already available on the shelves of companies and research institutes. But they do not reach farmers, they do not know about it, or they cannot afford it.”

The new Access to Seeds index, initiated by the Amsterdam-based Access to Seeds Foundation, evaluated the efforts of 24 leading seed companies in South and Southeast Asia to support growth in the productivity of smallholder farmers — one of the targets of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. The standout companies tailor their models to the needs of farmers by offering custom seed package sizes, training, and other learning opportunities attached to new seed varieties, the report found.

Thailand-based East-West Seed topped the list, mainly because it was set up with a specific mission to support smallholder productivity, according to the report: “It shows to the industry that working for smallholders is not charity but can create a good business for smallholders as well as for a company,” Verhagen said.  

But overall, the sector is failing to reach smallholders with hands-on training to enable them to understand and best utilize new seed varieties. The highest number of technical staff was reported in India, but based on estimates of farmers reached by the 24 companies in the index, together they reach no more than 20 percent of all active smallholder farmers.

East-West Seed company does have distribution channels that reach remote villages. The majority of the company’s marketing activities focus on the village and township level, where mobile teams regularly work in the field. It’s a model that the company implements in all markets where the company is active.

Many other companies the index evaluated, meanwhile, offered these services in the country in which they are headquartered but dropped trainings when they cross the border. As a result, although the study showed seed companies present in every country in South and Southeast Asia, activities are often limited to sales.

Other companies high in the index ranking have breeding stations in multiple countries: “It is essential to tailor varieties to specific geographies,” Verhagen said. “Ultimately it is important that farmers can choose from a variety that they need from a supplier that they trust. In many locations, there is currently no choice between varieties or suppliers.”

The study also found that investments in breeding and production activities tend to concentrate on “seed hubs” such as India, Thailand, and Indonesia. For companies, it makes sense from a business point of view to base themselves in countries with good regulations, where they can find skilled staff, Verhagen said.

But the development of a local seed industry in other countries, such as Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, runs the risk of lagging further behind — and potentially leaving farmers behind.

“We have to change the global food system, and we can’t do that without the private sector, as the food chain is essentially a private sector, from farm to food shop.”

— Ido Verhagen, executive director, Access to Seeds Foundation

Governments of countries where companies do not invest should be alarmed by these findings and seek to make their business climate for seed companies more attractive, the report states.

“We have to produce more food while … reducing the impact of agriculture on the planet,” Verhagen said. “We have to change the global food system, and we can’t do that without the private sector, as the food chain is essentially a private sector, from farm to food shop.”

The Access to Seeds index for South and Southeast Asia is one of the first SDG benchmarks published by the World Benchmarking Alliance, an initiative launched to measure and compare corporate performance on the SDGs. The alliance started with the seed industry “at the beginning of the food value chain,” Verhagen said, but plans to publish other benchmarks for various parts of the value chain such as traders, food producers, and retailers.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.