Agriculture, a crucial livelihood source for 50% of India’s population, is vulnerable to climate change. This has further impacted the farmers’ income and raised the issue of food shortage in India. With India’s population expected to touch 1.5 billion by 2030, the demand for food will increase further. This, coupled with a clear shift in preferences towards nutritious food, makes it imperative to adopt a strategy of using hybrid seeds for sustainable agrarian results.
Hybrid seeds are crucial in addressing food shortage, wastage, climate concerns and deteriorating food quality. They are created by controlled cross-pollination between different varieties of the same plant to enhance the resulting plants’ characteristics, such as better yield, greater uniformity, pest resistance and disease resistance. This enhances farm productivity, thus increasing the profitability of farmers, which mainly benefits smallholders, who account for over 80% of all farmers in India.
Appropriate policy reforms and subsidies are crucial in promoting smallholders’ use of hybrid seeds. Over the decades, the popularity of hybrid seeds has been increasing among farmers in India. Hybrid varieties get ready for harvest quickly as compared to traditional varieties (these are handpicked by farmers from the field after harvest for use next year, and the process can be replicated for generations) or the open pollinated variety (OPV) seeds (these are mostly developed by agricultural universities and can be used for five to seven years). “The quicker harvest quality of hybrid seeds gives farmers a window to sow short-duration crops, such as potato, between two crop cycles,” as per experienced farmers.
The increase in the share of private companies in India’s seed market finds mention in the 25th report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture, tabled in the Lok Sabha in 2021.It says that in India, hybrid seeds are mostly developed and sold by national and multinational private sector firms, and that the share of private sector in India’s seed market has increased from 57.3 per cent in 2017-18 to 64.5 per cent in 2020-21.
A 2019 report by Indian Council of Food and Agriculture says that the country’s seed market reached a value of US $4.1 billion in 2018, registering a growth rate of 15.7 per cent in 2011-18, and is expected to grow at 13.6 per cent in 2019-24, reaching a value of US $9.1 billion by 2024.
“Wheat and paddy account for about 85 per cent of this seed market. Of the two crops, hybrid seeds are only available for paddy in India, and occupy about 6 per cent of the country’s 44 million hectares under rice. Though this might seem a small share, it is expanding and can quickly spread, like it happened in the case of hybrid maize varieties,” according to Virendra Singh Lather, former chief scientist, Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
The origin of hybrids can be traced to India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s, when the government’s effort was primarily to increase agricultural productivity. For this, the National Seed Corporation was set up to develop, store and distribute high yield variety seeds. Till the 1980s, the public sector had a firm control on the seed market and supplied OPV seeds to farmers. Towards the end of the decade, the government allowed development and distribution of hybrid varieties by private players. This trend has continued, but poses a threat to the country’s crop diversity and the traditional varieties that are more suited to the local climates.
“Unlike traditional or OPV seeds, hybrid seeds are quite sensitive to temperature and rain. For instance, a hybrid variety of paddy requires rainfall within 15-20 of sowing. However, according to farmers it is reported that in 2022, they lost their paddy because the rain got delayed,” says farmers in Ludru village of Jharkhand’s Khunti district. “This is not the case with traditional varieties. They said that there is a local wheat variety called goda dhan that even grows in areas with severe water shortage. “There is also a rise in cases of crop failure of hybrid varieties, such as maize,” “Farmers sowed hybrid seeds of moong (green gram) around 2018, but stopped when the yield decreased after just two years. “What’s worse is that no government authority has blamed hybrid seeds or their manufacturing companies for the seed failure, “lamented by the farmers.
Manufacturers of hybrid seeds also tend to hike prices when the demand rises. “Haryana now grows a lot of hybrid bajra (pearl millet). When it was introduced about a decade ago, the rate was quite cheap. But now, when traditional bajra seeds have almost become negligible, the rate of hybrid seeds has been hiked to Rs 650 per kg,” says farmers of Gamda village in Hisar district of Haryana.
“Same is the case with mustard seeds that now cost about Rs 1,000 per kg. The traditional variety costs Rs 80 per kg,”farmers added. Farmers also say that they are often forced to buy hybrids. “Our district has no government seed bank. So we have to go to private sellers,” say farmers of Khunti district. Hisar district of Haryana has a government seed bank that provides free seeds. But popular OPV mustard varieties, such as 725, 729 and RH-30, only arrive when the sowing period is nearing an end.
Farmers, therefore, buy from private firms,”. “Multinational firms pay private shops higher commissions to encourage farmers to buy and try hybrid varieties,” says V K Gaur, retired chairman and managing director of National Seed Corporation. The government also often stops production of popular varieties, which, farmers suspect, is done at the behest of private companies.
“In 1993, the government launched a OPV paddy variety called PR-Indira. It had a yield that matched hybrid varieties and was quite popular. But it was suddenly taken back in 1998,” says Tejveer Singh, spokesperson of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (Shaheed Bhagat Singh).“Same was the case with PR 201 variety, which was recalled in 2001. All this is done to benefit companies,” he alleges.
Use of hybrid seeds can also damage the diversity of crops over the years. Politics of Seed: Common Resource or a Private Property, published by international think tank Focus on the Global South in 2018, says that after the Green Revolution, “introduction of company seeds and genetically uniformed modern varieties, heralded the process of genetic erosion and replacement of local varieties with high yielding and hybrid varieties...Profit became the primary focus in crop selection instead of an extensive diversity of local species of crops.
In this process, the great genetic diversity of crops were replaced by a narrow genetic range of crops”. This has also resulted in a decline of traditional varieties that are suited to the climes of their native place. “The majority of indigenous crop varieties, which had a special tendency to survive in adverse conditions due to low production, are no longer grown,” states the publication, adding that this has led to disappearance of thousands of varieties of paddy or hundreds of varieties of pulses, millets and other coarse cereals.
The claim of hybrid yields being 20-30 per cent higher than traditional and OPV seeds is exaggerated. “Hybrid seeds are used mostly in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Punjab and Haryana, which are the primary producers of wheat and rice in the country, still largely use OPV seeds,” as higher yield is merely a result of higher use of pesticides and fertilisers that hybrid varieties require to survive.
“The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001, has already changed community ownership of seeds to individual, which favours seed breeders and developers. The way companies are pushing for hybrids the day is not far when the market will only have hybrid seeds,” as per experienced farmers. Consumers are becoming more health conscious which has led to a preference shift towards nutritious food. Thus, it becomes imperative to have good-quality seeds for sustainable agrarian results.
The introduction of agritech has helped propel the growth of hybrid seeds. The leading seed breeders have been leveraging advanced digital technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning that provide real-time actionable insights to address issues related to commercial seeds’ development, production, and distribution. They have been integrating machine learning techniques with the science of seed germination to predict and improve the overall pod outcome.
Acknowledging the growing demand for developing high-yielding new hybrid seeds, the Indian seed sector has ramped up its R&D expenditure. The industry is mainly focused on investing in R&D to develop hybrids of seeds. Besides, increased investment by the government and public, as well as private research institutes to enhance crop production, supply chain management, and quality assurance, will ultimately benefit the seed industry in India.
Integrating hybrid seeds in farming isn’t smooth, often due to a lack of awareness at the grass-root level, inadequate access to quality seeds from trusted suppliers and fragmented land ownership in India. In this regard, enhancing industry-farmer partnerships to provide appropriate training, support and knowledge to the farmers can help increase the adoption of hybrid seeds.
In recent years, the Indian nutraceutical industry has started working closely with farmers to employ smart agriculture and optimised post-harvest processing techniques. This makes the nutraceutical industry stakeholders and agriculturalists take advantage of the rich tradition of Indian agriculture and Ayurveda.
The amalgamation of technology with ancient history and natural resources enables farmers to do GEO tagging, area mapping, crop management advisories, and more, thereby enhancing overall productivity. Today, the Indian seed industry has become more ‘farmer-centric’, as is evident from its growing collaboration with farmers. This has helped the companies introduce improved seed varieties that are climate resilient, high yielding, and can withstand several biotic and abiotic pressures.
Simultaneously, farmers realise that hybrid seeds, if combined with biotechnology and other crop improvement technologies, can substantially enhance farm productivity and, thus, profitability. This, coupled with the government’s policy reforms, and subsidies to promote hybrid seeds, will be the best path towards doubling farmers’ income in India. It is evident that modern India is leaving behind the old adage in practice that farmers should have the source of seed, and they should choose what gets planted! The farmers themselves have realized that buying Hybrids is economically sounder, and the change process is significant for the betterment of Indian agriculture.