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Breeding for the market: India private sector’s green revolutionqrcode

−− India’s vegetable production has doubled since the start of this century; the credit for it goes mainly to private seed companies.

Feb. 22, 2018

Favorites Print Feb. 22, 2018
Author: Harish Damodaran

A trader auctioning tomatoes at Karnataka’s Kolar APMC market yard. (Express Photo: Kashif Masood)

India’s first Green Revolution was largely public sector-led.

The high-yielding wheat and paddy varieties from the 1960s to the 1980s, which made the country self-reliant in cereals, were developed by the various Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) institutes and state agricultural universities. These institutions have continued to dominate the breeding space in wheat, paddy (including basmati), sugarcane, pulses, soyabean, groundnut, mustard, potato and all such open-pollinated variety or OPV crops, whose grain can be saved as seed for re-planting by farmers.

Private sector seed firms — the likes of Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco) and Indo-American Hybrid Seeds — started making inroads from the early 1980s by breeding hybrids in jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl-millet), cotton and vegetables such as tomato and capsicum. The industry came into its own during the last decade, especially with the advent of Bt cotton and single-cross maize hybrids. Today, private players are dominant in crops more amenable to hybridisation (their seeds are F1 hybrids produced by crossing two genetically diverse plants; the grains from these, even if saved and re-used as seed, will not yield the same hybrid vigour).

Hybrid seed adoption rates in India are today estimated at 60-70 per cent in maize, 90 per cent in jowar and bajra, and 95 per cent in cotton. But the real story of hybridisation-driven growth has been in vegetables, where a doubling of production, 88.62 million tonnes (mt) to 178.17 mt between 2001-02 and 2016-17, can be significantly credited to private seed companies. Leaving out potatoes (which are almost entirely grown as OPVs) and onions (where the hybridisation rate is only 20-25 per cent), their dominance in the vegetable seed business is near-total.

Tomatoes stacked in front of a commission agent’s shop at Karnataka’s Kolar market.(Express Photo: Kashif Masood)

The current domestic market for hybrid vegetable seeds is around Rs 2,500-3,000 crore, of which the major shares are of okra/bhindi and hot pepper/chilli (12 per cent each); followed by tomato and onion (10 per cent each); cauliflower and gourds (9 per cent each); cucumber/kheera (6 per cent); cabbage, sweet corn and watermelon (4 per cent each), other melons (3 per cent), eggplant/brinjal (2 per cent); and carrot and radish/mooli (1 per cent). Equally significant is the large market share of multinationals such as Syngenta (13 per cent), Nunhems/Bayer (12 per cent), Seminis/Monsanto (10 per cent) and East-West Seed (6 per cent). The Indian players mainly include Mahyco (9 per cent) and others with not as much share: Namdhari Seeds, Rasi Seeds, VNR Seeds, Beej Sheetal Seeds and Advanta Seeds.

There have been two key drivers of the above private sector-led “greens revolution”. The first is, of course, the amenability of vegetables to hybridisation; hybrid seeds penetration rates in tomatoes, chillies, okra, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumber, capsicum and gourds are now 75 per cent or more. The second is high yields, which makes farmers willing to pay more for these seeds.

The best Punjab farmer cannot harvest beyond 3.3-3.5 tonnes of paddy or 2.6-2.8 tonnes of wheat per acre. In contrast, tomato yields range from 30 to 45 tonnes per acre, with some farmers harvesting even more. The revenue per acre from growing tomatoes (Rs 4 lakh, taking 40 tonnes yield at Rs 10/kg) is far higher than the corresponding Rs 45,000-55,000 for wheat and paddy at current minimum support prices. Not surprising, a Syngenta or Seminis are able to charge Rs 400-450 for a 10-gram packet of tomato seeds sown and transplanted in the kharif rainy season. The cost is even more, at Rs 850-1,150/packet, for tomatoes planted for sale in the summer months when price realisations, too, are higher. Farmers don’t mind paying because the seed cost, at 2-3 packets per acre, works out just a fraction of their gross revenue.

The private sector-led breeding programme in vegetables has done three things.

To start with, it has significantly raised production and yields and, in many cases, year-round availability. Take tomatoes, where most farmers today grow two crops. That includes the rainy season one transplanted during May-August (nursery sowing happens about a month before) and harvested over 15-16 pickings till September-December (the first picking is after 65-70 days and roughly two per week thereafter), followed by rabi tomatoes transplanted in September-October and harvested up to January-February. In places like Kolar in Karnataka and Junnar (Pune) and Sangamner (Ahmednagar) in Maharashtra, farmers plant summer tomatoes from November-April, which get harvested till March-August and also fetch much better prices.

Secondly, high yields and intensive cultivation have resulted in the emergence of production centres specialising in particular vegetables. Thus, for tomatoes, we have Kolar, Mandya and Mysore in Karnataka; Madanapalle (Chittoor), Anantapur and Karimnagar in Andhra Pradesh-Telangaga; Theni, Madurai and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu; Junnar-Sangamner in Maharashtra; and Shivpuri, Ratlam, Indore, Chhindwara and Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. Likewise, for chilli, there is Guntur, Khammam and Bhadrachalam in AP-Telangana; Haveri in Karnataka; Khargone in MP; and Kota in Rajasthan.

Third, breeding is no longer simply about yield improvement or resistance against pest and disease (early/late blight, bacterial wilt, cucumovirus, tospovirus and leaf curl virus in tomato or phytophthora blight, anthracnose, potyvirus and geminivirus in chilli). It is also about improving quality traits and breeding for specific market segments.

Monsanto, for instance, has a quality analytics lab at its 117-acre mega breeding station in Kallinayakahalli, around 55 km from Bengaluru. The lab has facilities to measure firmness, colour, acidity and brix (sweetness) content in tomatoes. The first two traits are important for transportability – firm oblong-shaped fruits, picked when not fully red, are better suited for supplying from Kolar to Delhi in summers — while tomatoes with higher acidity and lower brix are fine for sambar and rasam, but not for table and salad applications. There are similar measurable traits relating to pungency and colour retention capacity in chilli. Farmers typically keep their harvested and sun-dried red chillies in cold stores to benefit from higher off-season prices. They would, then, clearly prefer hybrids producing fruits with better colour retention.

Such market-led plant breeding is what differentiates the private seed industry from the ICAR and other publicly-funded institutions. And that is becoming increasingly obvious, for good or bad.

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