New Varieties Bred for Local Conditions
By Alex Russell
Hybrid maize seeds and the yields they make possible can make a big difference for small-scale farmers in developing economies worldwide, especially those who are at risk of poverty and food insecurity. However, low adoption rates are common, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
A randomized controlled trial in Kenya led by Michael Carter, a professor of agricultural and resource economics and director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets and Market Access at UC Davis, tested whether hybrid maize seeds tailored for western Kenya’s mid-altitude regions could increase yields and income for small-scale farmers.
“We found that making those seeds available had a very large impact on maize productivity,” Carter said. “So there really was something in those seeds that was different.”
Hybrid Maize Seeds for Higher Yields
Hybrid seeds are the product of breeding two distinct varieties of a plant into a single, first-generation hybrid that has all the desired characteristics of both parent lines. This is how plant breeders typically create plants that are drought tolerant or resistant to disease. First-generation hybrid seeds also benefit from heterosis, which results in bigger plants and significantly higher crop yields.
In western Kenya, hybrid maize adoption rates hover around 40 percent. One reason may be the cost. Hybrid seeds must be purchased each year, while local or traditional varieties can be saved from the last harvest. A hybrid crop’s second generation of seeds produces plants that are smaller than the hybrid parent line. They also don’t uniformly contain the characteristics of the two original parent lines.
Another reason may be that many of the hybrid seeds available in western Kenya were developed for climates and conditions at altitudes around 2,000 meters (over 6,000 feet) above sea level. Those seeds don’t perform as well at mid-altitudes, between 1,000 and 1,500 meters (about 3000 to 5000 feet) above sea level, where the climate is warmer and the growing season is shorter.
Higher Maize Yields in Western Kenya
The UC Davis experiment, in partnership with the Tegemeo Institute for Agriculture and Policy Development in Kenya, took place between 2013 and 2015. About 1,200 farmers in western Kenya’s mid-altitude regions received 250-gram trial seed packets and information on hybrid seeds bred by a local company, Western Seed Company, for mid-altitude conditions. Farmers had the option to purchase full bags to be delivered to their homes at a cost of about 2,000 Kenyan shillings per acre (about $20).
The study was randomized, so different farmers received different treatments. Some farmers received only the seed trail packets and the option to purchase. Some farmers received soil testing and a 50kg bag of high-quality fertilizer to test how they would use the recommendations. Some farmers received both, and the control group received no treatment at all.
Biggest Gains for Farmers Who Already Used Hybrids
Maize farmers given the opportunity to purchase Western Seed hybrids developed for their agro-ecological niche increased their per-acre productivity by 41 percent compared to the control group. Farmers who had historically used hybrid seed increased maize productivity by 85 percent, compared to 30 percent among those who did not regularly use hybrid seed.
Follow-up surveys showed that the higher yields increased the number of meals these households ate and the variety of their foods. Incomes also went up, but modestly. Across the sample, maize only accounted for about 25 percent of total household income.
Over three-fourths of all maize crops in Kenya are grown by small-scale farmers, and primarily for their own consumption. For these farmers, maize yields at an average 1.6 tons per hectare of land are about a fourth of what is possible with today’s technologies like hybrid seeds. Hybrid seeds could make a particular difference across western Kenya where the average poverty rate is about 31 percent.
“This study provides strong evidence that a local seed company can increase smallholder productivity by developing varieties fine-tuned to niche agro-ecological environments that are often overlooked by larger seed companies,” said Carter.
Alex Russell manages communications at the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets and Market Access at UC Davis.