Why do farmers use "hybrid cultivars" that don't re-seed?
May 9, 2014 8:57 AM   Subscribe

I recently read this terribly sad article in the Guardian, which describes how cotton farmers in India "must purchase fresh seeds as retailers sell them only as hybrid cultivars, which prevents growers from replanting them the following year."

Why do the farmers do this, I'm guessing cost, or are they better for some reason? Would supplying them with seeds that self-propagate break this chain of dependence on the seed retailers? Is this so obvious that a charity or NGO has already thought of it and is doing this?

Google just showed me a few articles about seed programmes in Africa, I'm looking for more specific stuff, but my too-long-out-of-school, no-biology-terminology-left-in-vocabulary brain can't figure out the search terms. I'll be honest, I barely understand what a hybrid cultivar is.
posted by greenish to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Would supplying them with seeds that self-propagate break this chain of dependence on the seed retailers?

posted by Liesl at 9:02 AM on May 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

Typically the plants have been modified to be hardier and/or pesticide-resistant, and those modifications are patented so nobody else can sell them and the company gets to dictate whatever terms it likes.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:02 AM on May 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was going to add something, but basically what ^ those two ^ said.
posted by tinkletown at 9:09 AM on May 9, 2014

This isn't limited to India. Many of the seeds sold worldwide are hybrids. Farmers plant them because the hybrids are bred to confer different benefits: for example, early maturity (capturing the early part of a market often brings improved margins) or resistance to pests or more attractive fruits. Hybrids have existed for a long time, so there is really nothing wrong with them except they do not breed true. Real open-pollinated plants have a number of their own defects and it's up to the farmer what they want to grow and what problems they're willing to put up with to get it.

Hybrids still create pollen, and fields adjacent to some hybrid fields get bits of their genome in it; then those seeds express some of the genetic markers. In the case of some GMO seeds "ownership" of that genome has been enshrined in law, and down comes Monsanto to sue the farmer whose plants were contaminated by those markers.
posted by jet_silver at 9:11 AM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

"When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." That's why.

Read The Botany of Desire, especially the chapter about potato farmers.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:14 AM on May 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's not just about the seed, it's also about yield. The Bt seeds resulted in a higher yield. So, all the farmers started using it. Theoretically you could provide them with non-GM seed, but then they are back to the lower yield. However, now nobody in that area is selling the non-Bt seeds anymore, according to this article. There's a demand problem -- the cost for Bt seed is high because demand is outstripping supply.

It's a pretty complex issue. Possibly the answer is a better GM seed. Possibly the answer is lower yield, but that's hard to sell to people who don't eat regularly enough as it is. But the solution must be quite a bit more than just giving them seed that propagates.
posted by Houstonian at 9:14 AM on May 9, 2014

"it's up to the farmer what they want to grow and what problems they're willing to put up with to get it."

Sorry to burst this bubble, but many markets in countries of the global south are dominated by a very limited number of global players. It's not like the farmers have a lot of choice which seeds to buy in many places.

OP, there a a few good documentaries about the monopolization of the global food system. Check out "The World According To Monsanto", "Seeds of Freedom" and "Food Inc" (trailer) for a start.
posted by travelwithcats at 9:24 AM on May 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I think the early posters have missed an important piece of the puzzle, and also the hybrid/nonbreeding seed question is almost entirely separate from the GM question - hybrid seed has been around way longer than GMOs.

So, why would a farmer want a sterile hybrid plant? Part of this is that not all plants breed "true." Say I want to raise pink flowers. It may only be possible to grow pink flowers by a crossing of true-breeding red plant and a true-breeding white plant. Obviously it doesn't just exist for pink and white and red flowers; this can be true of many many many types of plant characteristics - hybrid plants might produce higher yields, be more pesticide resistant, or have better fruit, or whatever. You can get characteristics from hybrid plants that you can't get from true-breeding plants (and they're often much bigger, because they might have twice as many chromosomes as their parents - this happens in the wild sometimes).

But why do these hybrid plants have to be sterile? Part of it's just that hybrids are often sterile: think mules, or ligers. Part of it is that if the hybrids breed among themselves, they will produce inconsistent seeds that will lack the advantages of the hybrid. Imagine if you bred two ligers and you got a lion, a tiger, and a couple of ligers (this would not happen! but you get what I'm saying). If you plant a seed from, say, a Macintosh apple, you may get an apple tree, but it won't produce Macintosh apples (fruit trees are a whole other layer of complexity, but whatever for now). So you probably wouldn't *want* the plants grown from the children of hybrid seed.

It is still entirely possible to grow heirloom breed plants (which breed "true", producing the same/similar plants, generation after generation), and it it very desirable to do so in some circumstances, just as in some circumstances it's desirable to grow hybrid plants. I think in many cases (all around the world, not just in the developing world) farmers get seduced by the promises of the seed companies into believing that the hot new cultivar will solve all their problems.

Once you make the transition to buying hybrid seed, though, it can be hard to go back to true-breeding heirloom plants for a variety of economic and biological reasons. There are definitely seed companies and seed retailers that take advantage of poorly-educated/overly-hopeful farmers and get them to make the switch to hybrid seed when it is not in the farmer's (or the community's) best interest.
posted by mskyle at 9:29 AM on May 9, 2014 [31 favorites]

Best answer: A hybrid cultivar is one made by crossing two sub-strains together. You're familiar with how genetics work, where an organism has 2 copies of each chromosome* and each chromosome can have genes that give different results, yeah?

So let's say that a given organism has a gene for flower color, where variation A gives a red flower and variation B gives a white flower. If you have two parents that each have variation A on each chromosome, then they will both have red flowers, and so will all their offspring; the same is true if you have two parents who each have variation B. These varieties "breed true" -- two identical parents will always produce identical offspring.

However, if you cross an AA flower with a BB flower, you get a hybrid. Because each offspring gets one A gene and one B gene, you end up with a new variety, let's say red and white stripes. Exciting! However, because each offspring is AB, they won't breed true -- you can get three different results by crossing two AB plants, AA, BB, and AB. You can chart the various possibilities in something known as a Punnett square. The only way to reliably get 100% offspring of the hybrid type is to cross the individual parent strains every time; crossing the hybrids will only yield the hybrid type 50% of the time. And that's in a simple 1-gene common expression hybridization; actual plant hybridization is usually much more complicated.

so, why would you use hybrids at all? Well, the short answer is that hybrids are usually better; they are more disease resistant, or they have bigger fruit, or better yields. Or anyway, the ones that make it into commercial development are. But they're usually produced from parents that aren't very useful as a final crop, and there's no way to tell from the seeds which type you've got -- you have to wait until they are growing or even mature, after you've invested your land, labor, water, etc. into a plant that may be useless to you. So just crossing your hybrids and hoping for the best isn't a winning strategy. You could always cross your hybrids, study the final crop, reverse-engineer the parent strains, and try to set up your own hybridization facility, but that involves a lot of careful hand-pollination and plant isolation and just generally requires a lot of focus and resources. It makes better economic sense to just buy them.

That's outside of the shitty business practices that many major seed retailers go through, obviously. But straight up hybridization is not always a sign of global agribusiness gone amok.

*this is not always true but this is a simple version

On preview I guess I could have just let mskyle answer the question!
posted by KathrynT at 9:31 AM on May 9, 2014 [9 favorites]

A lot of the discussion above relates to GMOs, but it should be pointed out that the large scale use of hybrids in agriculture pre-dates GMOs. Henry Wallace founded Pioneer Hi-Bred in the 1920s in Iowa. By only the 1950s, most corn in the United States was hybrid. The advantage for the farmers was seed varieties that had a higher yield than either of the parent strains. The advantage to the seed company of hybrids is that the seed doesn't breed true, so the farmer has to keep buying new seed every year in order to get the benefits of the hybrid seed (that's in addition to any intellectual property rights). There is clearly a trade-off for the farmer to consider. Will the benefits of the hybrid seed outweigh the downside of having to keep buying seed?
posted by Area Man at 9:32 AM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What others have said. However, I do want to point out that there is a difference between GMO seeds and hybrid seeds, though both kinds will produce plants that won't produce seeds that replicate themselves. Here is a really good summary of the difference between heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid seeds from the excellent company Seed Savers, which conserves many heirloom varieties of seeds--their website has a wealth of information about these topics if you want to learn more. Here is another great article and speech on comparing hybrids and open pollinated varieties. One thing Seed Savers is concerned about is preserving food security by maintaining our heirloom varieties of food-producing plants in case the varieties agribusiness is currently monocropping fail.

It's not just that heirloom/open-pollinated seeds aren't available (they aren't as widely available, but they definitely do exist), but farmers have been convinced that they need to grow hybrids that can have higher yields/produce crops that are suitable for processing or travel/produce faster etc. in order to compete. Over years of switching over to using these crops that don't produce sees that "come true", farmers have also lost the knowledge and equipment to save seeds and store them properly, and they are dependent on buying seeds now. As for GMO seeds, many of those companies initially gave farmers those seeds for a pittance, knowing that because they would not produce viable seeds the farmers would become dependent on them.
posted by ialwayscryatendings at 9:33 AM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "Is this so obvious that a charity or NGO has already thought of it and is doing this?"

Yes, there are many orgs that provide seeds and training on sustainable farming methods to rural folks. If you're interested have a look at Heifer International or World Vision (and there are many more).
posted by travelwithcats at 9:36 AM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, I believe that part of the reason that farmers in large parts of the world are required to use hybrid cultivars is because their countries were forced to accept non-democratic Structural Adjustment Policies from the IMF and World Bank in order to keep the population paying off debt that was taken out and embezzled by dictators decades ago (and more than repaid in full, but through the miracle of interest, keeps the people in economic bondage).
posted by entropone at 9:53 AM on May 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

To add onto mskyle's and KathrynT's excellent answers here, another big reason why hybrid seeds have been so popular is consumer demand for recognizable and consistent produce. Consumers don't want do buy products they've never heard of, and we generally want them labelled as being something more specific than just tomato or whatever, thus producing tomatoes that are consistently beefsteak or roma tomatoes between farms requires common seed stocks that obviate any of the benefits of heirloom cultivation anyway.
"Is this so obvious that a charity or NGO has already thought of it and is doing this?"
Also, to counter the idea that GMO technology is inherently wedded to the hybrid seed business model, the International Rice Research Institute has been doing exactly this with GMO rice. They have bred the Golden Rice trait, which provides Vitamin A to exactly those that need it, into hundreds of local heirloom varieties that are right now saving thousands from death and blindness. Indeed, rice can travel where aid workers with Vitamin A needles in land rovers cannot, it does not immediately spoil even in tropical climates, it is value dense, and it is self replacing. What makes Golden Rice so amazing and useful in ways nothing else can be is that Rice has existing local infrastructure for growing it and distributing it even where international commerce does not reach in exactly the areas affected by Vitamin A deficiency. Its commercial value is and will always be entirely irrelevant to its true value to humanity because the trait is already pretty much worthless to anyone who can afford to buy it off of a shipping container from a corporation rather than an NGO that can fix prices for starter seed to whatever is locally appropriate.

In the developed world though, GMOs are currently only developed according to the Hybrid business model, making it stronger, but that also didn't and doesn't need to be the case. For example, the other big reason why there is only one or two varieties of tomato on your grocery shelf is also the reason why it tastes like shit. Ripe tomatoes are practically impossible to market on a more meaningful level than the back of a pickup truck even with modern logistics because they get soft, smush, and mold. The current industrial model is to pick hard unripe green tomatoes and expose them to ethylene gas, which softens them and makes them appear ripe, just before sale - but there is a another way. Using GM techniques, the lovably unwashed UC-Davis hippies who formed Calgene in a garage managed turn this model on its head by simply turning off the pathway that lead to the natural production of ethylene, allowing tomatoes to be picked while actually ripe, fragrant, delicious, and healthy but not soft.

There were other problems with the company, namely that they were scientists with little idea of how to farm tomatoes and ethylene production wasn't turned of as strongly as they had hoped, but the reason they ended up having to sell out their business and patents to Monsanto without being able to give it another shot with more experience is all of the bullshit FUD that Monsanto only ends up benefiting from. The trait they were developing could have trivially been breed into hundreds of varieties. Imagine every grocery section in the country with dozens of commercially viable heirloom tomatoes that would be actually fucking ripe and actually fucking taste like something. This is what GM techniques could do for us as a society if only we would trust the scientists who actually understand them to use them in creative ways to benefit us rather than shutting down everything that isn't so big and indifferent that it need not give a shit.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:07 AM on May 9, 2014 [9 favorites]

Really the answer you're looking for can be found in how the article you linked to very neatly follows Betteridge's law of headlines, where "Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."

There are a great deal of complex problems with Indian agriculture putting a huge amount of pressure onto Indian farmers, from India's abrupt transition from a largely socialist ag policy to a very capitalist one, to urban sprawl gobbling up all of the arable land, to the endemic corruption that is following the sprawl, to the culturally invisible but lethal pressures that drive farmers everywhere to extraordinarily high levels of suicide. However, contrary to the fevered imaginations and aggressively simplistic understandings of many in the Western activist community, GMO crops are not really among them,
Genetically Modified Crops and Food Security PLOS ONE
The role of genetically modified (GM) crops for food security is the subject of public controversy. GM crops could contribute to food production increases and higher food availability. There may also be impacts on food quality and nutrient composition. Finally, growing GM crops may influence farmers’ income and thus their economic access to food. Smallholder farmers make up a large proportion of the undernourished people worldwide. Our study focuses on this latter aspect and provides the first ex post analysis of food security impacts of GM crops at the micro level. We use comprehensive panel data collected over several years from farm households in India, where insect-resistant GM cotton has been widely adopted. Controlling for other factors, the adoption of GM cotton has significantly improved calorie consumption and dietary quality, resulting from increased family incomes. This technology has reduced food insecurity by 15–20% among cotton-producing households. GM crops alone will not solve the hunger problem, but they can be an important component in a broader food security strategy.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:23 AM on May 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

My family doesn't anymore, but for three generations we grew seed as a large part of the family farm. I don't mean we grew stuff and saved the seed to replant, I mean 100% of the crop yield was sold as seed to other farmers. The family stopped doing this in the late 1970's (I was the first generation to NOT be a farmer since, well, the family immigrated to the Carolina colony as part the land clearances in Scotland in the 1700's) and it was definitely before the modern GMO technology but Hybrids were a real thing and most of what what my dad grew (the most profitable year was growing garden vegetable seeds-mostly okra). So passing down the knowledge of growing good seed and being a profitable farmer was part of the family lore that I picked up.

Also, several types of GMO will breed true and are NOT controlled by Monsanto-specifically some of the vitamin fortified rices (of which I can't remember the name), unlike hybrids which usually don't breed true. Other than that, I am not going to talk about hybrid vs. GMO as other posters have answered that question, and what follows is the memory from childhood discussions 30 years ago and is more relevant in modern industrial farming with 100% yield than third world subsistence agriculture with a small surplus.

The reasons most modern farmers buy seeds and don't save them is like any other kind of capital intensive manufacturing, you get specialization. It is important to remember that farming is not just gardening with large power equipment, it is fundamentally different. Seed germination can be iffy at best and careful seed harvesting and processing are key and require specialized equipment (our family's equipment was donated to Hale County museum when my Grandmother passed away). This means saving seeds from last years harvest isn't a trivial exercise but rather yet another toilsome task with small profit for the farmer, and if he can buy seed gets to sell 100% of his yield and probably get a higher germination rate in the process. He also isn't locked into growing the same thing next year or even the same variety of the same thing and can respond somewhat better to market condition and for some crops saving the seed is actually really difficult. Things like cotton, and a lot of vegetables are actually harvested before they go to seed (lettuce, potatoes, all the brassicas). So buying seed from another farmer that specializes in that just makes sense for a lot of farmers, and doesn't require any grand corporate conspiracy to screw anybody.

I am not saying Monsanto isn't the devil in corporate form-I am pretty sure they are, but GMO is not Monsanto is not Hybrid.
posted by bartonlong at 10:26 AM on May 9, 2014 [16 favorites]

If you have a backyard garden or a bit of space in a community garden, you can try this out yourself. You can get an heirloom tomato and an F1 hybrid tomato pretty easily at a gardening center (or start them from seed next year!), of the same sort of tomato (grape tomato, beefsteak, pink, whatever), and grow them side by side and see the difference yourself. The F1 hybrids are just EASIER ... they tend to produce larger tomatoes and wilt less in the heat and the plants are more vigorous generally.

We are Seed Savers fans and grow lots of heirloom varieties of lots of plants in our home garden, and we actually save seeds years-to-year, but we tend to get F1 hybrids for half our tomatoes (especially the ones the kids are growing -- less frustrating for them) and for sweet corn, because F1 sweet corns are just goooooooooood.

Trying it yourself will also give you some idea of the labor involved in seed saving -- harvesting the seeds, preparing them for storage, storing them properly, not losing them over the winter, etc. It's not brain surgery, but it definitely requires education, supplies, storage space, and sometimes holding back part of your harvest. If you're a home gardener you can do that without much trouble, picking the seeds out of a melon after you eat it for example, but if you're a commercial farmer, you're going to have to sell those melons whole and either keep some back unsold for the seeds or purchase seeds. Those decisions get much harder when you have razor-thin margins and the difference between a good year and a bad one determines whether your family has enough to eat that winter. You also generally want to save your BEST fruits for seed propagation ... which are also the ones you want to sell. It'd be a lot easier if saving the ugly, malformed, small fruits was a good idea!

The other thing about seed-saving vs. purchasing, even when doing nothing but heirlooms, is that, in some cases, it's possible to propagate diseases along with your seeds and have no idea until your crop fails the next spring. When you buy seeds (in the U.S. and many other places), the seeds have been treated to be disease free. In many cases, especially at a smaller scale, it's far less hassle to simply buy fresh seeds that have been processed ... potatoes (which you propagate from the saved tuber, but same principle) are particularly susceptible to viruses, for example, and for many potato-growers it's just cheaper and easier to buy seed potatoes instead of saving them. Ensuring disease-free saved seeds may require specialized equipment or treatment, which on a small scale (or outside an area with a reliable supply of electricity) may not be economically viable.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:26 AM on May 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wild Garden Seed's blog has many posts on this topic. Frank Morton is a genius lettuce breeder, and sells open-pollinated seeds so you can try your hand at plant breeding if you'd like.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 1:29 PM on May 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just chiming in to say, you should also check up on the facts behind that article that you posted. I don't have a ton of time at this moment to do that myself and write up a longer post, but I have been researching the question of intellectual property rights in agriculture for the past few months for school (hybrid seeds are basically a form of biological intellectual property rights in that they allow breeders to reap a higher reward on their investment because farmers have to buy new seeds each season - the same as patents or plant breeders rights on varieties, which serve the same purpose but just through legal means) and there is a lot of misinformation about it and a lot of exaggerations in general. At least that is my general impression, and I say that as someone who started looking at this subject from the Monsanto-is-the-devil standpoint (I haven't migrated to the I-believe-Monsanto-when-they-call-themselves-a-sustainable-agriculture-company standpoint yet either but I do think it is basically a very complicated subject).

Just off the top of my head, here are a few articles to look at:

Farmer suicides in India, related to Bt cotton?
Bt cotton skepticism
Ipr and plant breeding

And one other random tidbit about the farmers suicides question that you had that I can comment on is that you might want to look up info about suicide rates among farmers in general. It is my understanding that they tend to be higher than the general population, just because of the uncertain nature of farming. This is not to say that what that article says is happening is not happening anywhere, just that there are multiple factors at work here.
posted by thesnowyslaps at 2:04 PM on May 9, 2014

I have a pretty big garden and I grow almost all heirloom vegetables from seeds I've saved. It's great hobby, but I can't imagine the stress of being a full-time farmer.
posted by freakazoid at 4:40 AM on May 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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