Data & Insights: How to Know What Farmers Grow & Strengthen Seed Systems

Woman on her farm in Kiganto, Kenya

Imagine a system which delivers timely, accurate, reliable information on crop variety adoption and diffusion to seed sector stakeholders––governments, research institute, seed companies and farmers. A system which takes guessing out of the equation and instead delivers objective data for monitoring crop improvement progress, seed system effectiveness, planning for seed multiplication and distribution, and verification by farmers.

Now imagine being a farmer recruited to participate in a survey asking you to identify the varieties of crops grown on your farm. This seemingly simple question is deceivingly complex. A growing body of literature has demonstrated that asking farmers to name the crop variety grown is not reliable. Often seeds have multiple names: an official release name, a local name, and a marketed name. And in some cases, there is no official name––especially if it was a landrace or sourced from another farmer. Several countries such as Kenya and Nigeria have recently introduced systems for labeling and seed traceability. These systems include scratch off labels, text codes, and even electronic tracking systems giving farmers more confidence in the seed purity and quality, but in many places and for many crops there is no reliable source of information on varietal ID.

That’s where genotyping comes in. By taking a physical sample from the crop (either leaf or grain), extracting the DNA, and assessing the genotypic information, accurate varietal information can be obtained through testing against a known set of references. This method not only provides credible information about the variety ID, but it can also provide data on genetic purity, indicating whether varieties are true-to-type.

Knowing what farmers are actually growing is extremely useful. Combining this data with datasets containing year of release and area under cultivation can enable the calculation of an average area-weighted age of varieties. This is an important indicator of performance for breeding and seed systems and their ability to deliver improved varieties to farmers. This indicator has become widely accepted by donors and investors to track the impact of investments in the seed sector. This isn’t the only use case; others include the following:

  • Breeders can use these data to help inform product profiles;  
  • Seed companies can use these data to inform marketing and seed production plans;  
  • Regulators can use these data to monitor seed integrity in the value chain;
  • Governments can assess the return on investments in crop improvement, and
  • Farmers can make more informed management decisions when acting confidently on reliable data.

As Peter Durker put it, “What gets measured, gets managed,” and this is the philosophy within the Seed Systems and Varietal Improvement Team at the Gates Foundation as well. We’ve been working with partners to generate evidence on the feasibility of applying genotyping at scale for measuring varietal turnover and adoption. The results are promising we are working to scale such methods and systems to accurately measure what’s being grown in farmers’ fields.

Read the original version of that article here.

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