Hybrid seeds are becoming increasingly popular in India. But that is not good news; here is why

Hybrid seeds could threaten the country’s crop diversity and the hardy traditional varieties suited to grow in their native climes 

By Raju Sajwan
Published: Monday 25 September 2023
Farmers of Jharkhand's Khunti district say they lost almost half of their hybrid paddy crop in 2022 because the monsoon rain was delayed, but the traditional varieties survived (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary)__

Daljit Singh usually harvests 10 tonnes of rice from his 1.5-hectare farmland. But in 2022, the yield was just 1.9 tonnes. Most of the crop was dwarfed due to a Fiji virus infection. “I had used hybrid seeds manufactured by German company Bayer. This year, all the farmers in my village have decided not to use seeds manufactured by Bayer because they seem to catch infection easily,” says Daljit.

Daljit is a farmer in Shahbad, a village in Ambala district of Haryana. Though the farmers of Shahbad did not use seeds by Bayer this year, they have not become averse to hybrid seeds altogether. “We have used hybrid varieties of a different brand because hybrid seeds give better yield,” says Daljit.

Over the decades, 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 univer-sities 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,” says Manjit Singh, a farmer from Mohri in Ambala district.

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,” says 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.

Trouble with hybrids

“Unlike traditional or OPV seeds, hybrid seeds are quite sensitive to temperature and rain. For instance, hybrid variety of paddy requires rainfall within 15-20 of sowing. In 2022, I lost my paddy because the rain got delayed,” says Chetan Dhanwar, a farmer of Ludru village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district.

“This is not the case with traditional varieties. We have a local wheat variety called goda dhan that even grows in areas with severe water shortage,” he adds.

“There is also a rise in cases of crop failure of hybrid varieties, such as maize,” Lather adds. Ashok Danod, a farmer in Danod village of Haryana’s Jind district, corroborates this.

“Farmers in our village sowed hybrid seeds of moong (green gram) around 2018, but stopped when the yield decreased after just two years,” he says.

“What’s worse is that no government authority has blamed hybrid seeds or their manufacturing companies for the seed failure,” says Lather.

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 have been hiked to Rs 650 per kg,” says Kala Gamda, a farmer 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,” Gamda adds.

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,” says Dhanwar of Khunti district.

“Our district Hisar 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,” says Gamda.

“Multinational firms pay private shops higher commissions to make them 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 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 lead to disappearance of thousands of varieties of paddy or hundreds of varieties of pulses, millets and other coarse cereals.

Inflated yields

Lather says that 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,” says Lather.

Subhash Palekar, an agriculturist from Maharashtra, who has developed his own natural farming techniques, says that the 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,” warns Tejveer Singh.

This was first published in the 1-15 September, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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