It is estimated that the global population will increase to 9 billion people by 2050, and according to World Health Organization predictions, global food consumption will rise to more than 3000 kcal/person/day. This leads to the astounding fact that this will require global food production for the next 40 years to be equal to the entire production of the last 12,000 years (FAO), and this near-miracle must be achieved in spite of climate change and limited amounts of land, water and fossil fuels. Fortunately, through plant breeding, the seed industry has managed to overcome many challenges in the past, and we can only assume that it will continue to do so as we need to produce more and better food for a growing population.
In 1960 the production of one hectare was able to feed two people, in 1995 one hectare fed four, and in 2025 one hectare should produce food for five people. This shows that, over a period of 35 years, the seed industry has managed to double food production in order to meet the demand. But now, the 25 percent increase in food production over a period of 15 years must be achieved with the same amount of land and often in more adverse conditions, such as depleted and degraded soils.
Productivity gains are caused by many factors; however, a large part is due to the genetic advances obtained with plant breeding. For example, of the overall yield gains in corn in the USA since 1930, around 40 to 50 percent were due to agronomic management, such as nitrogen application, agrochemicals, sowing density and tillage, while the other 50 to 60 percent were due to genetic progress. Currently, the average productivity of corn in the USA is close to 10t/ha. In England, a large study conducted since 1982 showed that more than 90 percent of productivity gains in wheat were due to plant breeding.
In Brazil, the productivity gains have also been considerable, largely due to plant breeding. For example, in the last 20 years, the productivity increase in soybeans, corn, wheat, rice and cotton has been around 50 percent. In 1990, the average productivity of soybeans was 2t/ha; these days it is 3t/ha. This increase of 1t/ha may seem small, but considering that the country grows 23 million hectares of soybeans per year, it means an increase of 23 million tons of grain per year that can feed many people. Similarly, in 1990 the average yield in corn was 1.95 t/ha compared to today’s 4.45t/ha, which means an increase of more than 100 percent. In a country where 11 million hectares are cultivated with corn, this means an increase of 27.5 million tons of corn grains per year. To get an idea of what this production means, it is noted that about 1 kg of corn is needed in order to obtain 1 kg of chicken meat; thus, the 27.5 million tons of corn means the availability of 27.5 million tons of chicken meat for society. Considering the fact that 1 kg of chicken meat has 1000 kcal and a normal diet is comprised of 3050 kcal/day, 27.5 million tons of meat is enough to feed, for one year, more than 24 million people.
The productivity increase with the use of high-quality seeds of improved varieties can reduce the cost of food by allowing farmers to spend less on labour; this is perhaps the most visible part of what the seed can provide. However, improved varieties have other benefits. Some varieties have higher yields, and therefore land is used more efficiently, with a diminished or eradicated need to deforest. Another benefit is the increased nutritional quality that improved varieties can provide; several classic examples include golden rice, which supplies vitamin A and iron; a soybean rich in Omega 3 which helps prevent cholesterol; and a soybean rich in low saturated oils. Improved seed can also help minimize storage losses of grains that reach more than 10 percent per year, globally. Many more benefits could be used to illustrate what improved seeds are able to contribute to our well-being.
A big storm, such as the one which occurred in 2007/2008, with the subsequent rising of food prices, could occur again. To minimize this risk, one of the best tools could be the use of improved varieties. This sounds easy, but it involves science and technology, many years of hard work by many people and a lot of money. Plants should produce more, be stronger and ripen earlier, be tolerant to adverse weather conditions as well as resistant to diseases and pests, be easy to harvest and possess high nutritional quality, among other things. There is a consensus that agriculture these days has two priorities: food safety with increased productivity, and sustainability. The use of improved seed can help farmers to meet these priorities, as long as it is acknowledged that science and technology require policies for medium and long-term investments and these cannot be turned on and off like a light switch.
It is evident that food security and food production have different meanings depending on the country; however, even those very few countries which still have new land to explore should consider increasing productivity with better varieties rather than adding land. In countries like Brazil, where agribusiness accounts for almost 30 percent of the gross national product (GNP), investments in science and technology for increasing crop yields are significant, both from public and private sectors. The annual investment of the public sector in Brazil in science and technology for agribusiness exceeds two billion dollars annually, and as such, it provides a good balance between the public and private sectors, with superior materials released every year in the major crops.
High-quality seed of improved varieties must be used by farmers in large quantities in order to significantly contribute to food security. Not only one super seed is needed, but billions and billions of such seeds of the highest quality possible. To that end, there is a global system in which the seeds, before being offered to the farmer, are multiplied in such a way that they maintain their quality. This system generally involves the production of four categories of seeds: genetic seed which is the first generation, basic seed which is the second, certified 1 seed (in Brazil and other countries, in general this is called “registered” seed) and certified 2 seed, which is the fourth generation. This process allows for the possibility of a large quantity of quality seeds available at affordable prices to the farmer (seed costs are usually less than 10 percent of the production cost of the major crops).
Seed production and distribution to farmers is complex and involves multiple technologies and large investments. Those who are dedicated to this noble activity, besides requiring financial and human resources, will also require a legal framework for their activities. Fortunately, most countries have already realized this need and have seed laws which protect and guide all the participants in the chain, from the breeder of improved varieties to the farmer who uses the seeds.
Another aspect to be considered with regard to the role of improved seeds in reducing the threat of food scarcity is that besides the human and financial resources discussed previously, there is a need for an environment of mutual trust between plant breeding programs and the government, through a legal framework of plant variety protection. Fortunately, most countries have government agreements for plant variety protection, and adhere to the UPOV Conventions. The UPOV Convention of 1978 considers the protection of new cultivars until the production of seed, while the Convention of 1991 (currently the only one which a country can join) includes protection until the grain is harvested.
"The productivity increase with the use of high-quality seeds of improved varieties can reduce the cost of food by allowing farmers to be more efficient."
This convention also states that a country may allow for a farmer to use the seed of his own harvest again for sowing purposes, but only within reasonable limits and with consideration to the legitimate interests of the breeder. Many countries have introduced a royalty scheme whereby farmers saving seeds for the next year must pay a royalty to the breeder. Another important aspect of plant variety protection is that both of these UPOV Conventions include an exemption for the breeder; in other words, any improved variety that is being marketed can be used by any other breeder in their own breeding programs. This also means that anyone who has a superior variety knows that in a few years, someone else will probably have developed an even better variety, so if the original breeder wants to stay on top, he cannot “rest.”
In the laws of plant variety protection, access to the commercial plant material is free; however, this does not automatically lead to greater dissemination and use of the technology or the product. In order to achieve this, there is a need for good programs and sound seed production and distribution processes. A good example can be found in a study conducted in Brazil in which corn yields varied from 2 to 15t/ha, with an average of 4.45t/ha. There were many farmers producing very well, while others were struggling to obtain higher productivity. The difference between these groups of farmers lay in the type of material they planted, as those who were getting high yields were using simple hybrid corn of high quality, while those with low productivity were mainly using native seeds (varieties without a seed production process). This exemplifies the importance of the creation and development of superior plant varieties; however, it is all useless if the farmer does not use it.
However, though the seed’s genetic load is of great importance, there are still some diseases which cannot be controlled genetically; thus, in order to increase production, it is necessary to use crop protection products. In contrast to foliar spraying, fortunately, many seed treatment applications have been developed which contain a significantly reduced amount of active ingredients, improving the sustainability of the system. In recent years, seed treatment products have been developed which contain fungicides, insecticides, nematicides, micronutrients, hormones and microorganisms, among others.
As can be seen, improved seed is an important way to minimize several of the challenges that agriculture is faced with to provide food for a continuously growing population, which also has an increased appetite. On average, the population will consume more, because it is expected that the current one billion people who are starving will gradually start getting out of poverty. With this in mind, we should ensure that productivity increases do not result in grains and fiber prices decreasing too much. Ideally, there should be a sustainable agricultural system that manages to feed a well-nourished population, but in which the farmer is also able to work and live and receive a fair amount of profit for his hard labor.
In a situation in Brazil where maize yields range from 2 to 15 t/ha, occasionally some farmers do not harvest enough to pay their bills. But when the most efficient farmers in terms of productivity and cost cannot pay their bills, we know something is wrong. This underscores the need for widespread distribution of all necessary technologies.
High yields are needed in order to lower food costs; however, it is essential that the whole system remains viable. The seed industry is confident and optimistic that improved seeds will help farmers overcome several of the challenges of producing enough food for an ever-growing population. Even with the possibility of producing an excess in some situations, seed can also be the solution, producing, beyond quantity, a superior quality for better nutrition or medicinal uses (which is another interesting discussion).
We are in a globalized world with a need to almost double food production over the next 40 years without increasing cultivated area and while using less water, while also facing more diseases, pests and weeds and the perils of climate change. The continuous development of improved varieties certainly may be one of the best ways to overcome this challenge, as has already been shown on previous occasions. In order to achieve this goal, it is evident that this developmental process will require large investments in science and technology with policies for the medium and long-term, both from the public and the private sector with sufficient sensitivity of the political class that we want to reduce the hunger of the global population while keeping the farmer viable. It is important that policies are made based on science, not emotions.