Over the past 40 years, plant breeding programs have helped ease seasonal hunger in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa by developing varieties that are not only higher yielding, but mature weeks or even months earlier than traditional varieties. Improved, early maturing varieties also help to reduce risk when the rains end earlier than expected and provide crop varieties that smallholder farmers can harvest when prices peak.
Large gains have also been achieved by developing resistance to such diseases as downy mildewin pearl millet, fusarium wilt in chickpea and pigeonpea, and rosette virus in groundnut. Insect resistance will likely be harder to achieve, but large gains are more than possible for such insect pests as legume pod borers and sorghum midge.
As plant breeder well know, the ultimate success of new breeding lines depends on consumer preferences and market demand. Consumers and processors place a high value on taste, texture, appearance, ease of preparation, and storage. In addition, urban and export markets demand specific, uniform quality characteristics. Indeed, improved grain quality can substantially raise market value, typically on the order of 20-30%.
Large additional yield gains have been possible with the development of hybrid varieties of pearl millet, sorghum and pigeonpea. For example, improved, fast-growing pigeonpea cultivars capable of withstanding exposure to drought are already helping farmers cope with the early affects of climate change. These new legume hybrids, the first of their kind, routinely out-produce conventional varieties by nearly a third and have gained wide acceptance in India, the world's largest producer and consumer of the crop. Plant breeders believe they could prove equally useful in Sub-Saharan Africa as the continent’s seed industry develops greater capacity.
Are development investors getting a good return? In more favorable environments, plant breeding has been shown to deliver value that exceeds its costs many times over. But what about in the dry areas, where gains are harder to come by?
Return-on-investment studies cannot be conducted for every variety released, but several examples suggest that these efforts provide extremely high rates of return. For example, a three million dollar effort to create and disseminate the early-maturing pearl millet variety Okashana 1, released in 1989 in Namibia, was estimated to return net benefits worth 50% of the investment, year after year - a rate of return that far outstrips most financial instruments.
Similar returns were recorded for sorghum. Improved varieties released in 1995 for the Nigerian food industry were evaluated in 2002 and estimated to be earning a 62% annual return on investment. A sorghum variety released in Chad (called S 35) generated even more spectacular results: a 95% return on investment per annum, generating about US$ 4 million per year in net benefits to the poor.
Cash value is of course not the only measure of success; the alleviation of human suffering is a priceless good in its own right. Nor do such studies assess all of the indirect benefits of economic growth and employment stimulated by the success of a new crop variety. These would include, for example, the training of national scientists, and increases in incomes and jobs associated with small-scale agricultural input supply, crop processing, and marketing.