Save and Grow

Chapter 4
Crops and varieties

Farmers will need a genetically diverse portfolio of improved crop varieties, suited to a range of agro-ecosystems and farming practices, and resilient to climate change

Sustainable crop production intensification will use crops and varieties that are better adapted to ecologically based production practices than those currently available, which were bred for high-input agriculture. The targeted use of external inputs will require plants that are more productive, use nutrients and water more efficiently, have greater resistance to insect pests and diseases, and are more tolerant to drought, flood, frost and higher temperatures. SCPI varieties will need to be adapted to less favoured areas and production systems, produce food with higher nutritional value and desirable organoleptic properties, and help improve the provision of ecosystem services.

Those new crops and varieties will be deployed in increasingly diverse production systems where associated agricultural biodiversity – such as livestock, pollinators, predators of pests, soil organisms and nitrogen fixing trees – is also important. Varieties suitable for SCPI will need to be adapted to changing production practices and farming systems (see Chapter 2) and to integrated pest management (see Chapter 6).

SCPI will be undertaken in combination with adaptation to climate change, which is expected to lead to alterations in timing, frequency and amounts of rainfall, with serious droughts in some areas and floods in others. Increased occurrence of extreme weather events is probable, along with soil erosion, land degradation and loss of biodiversity. Many of the characteristics required for adaptation to climate change are similar to those needed for SCPI. Increased genetic diversity will improve adaptability, while greater resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses will improve cropping system resilience.

Achieving SCPI means developing not only a new range of varieties, but also an increasingly diverse portfolio of varieties of an extended range of crops, many of which currently receive little attention from public or private plant breeders. Farmers will also need the means and opportunity to deploy these materials in their different production systems. That is why the management of plant genetic resources (PGR), development of crops and varieties, and the delivery of appropriate, high quality seeds and planting materials to farmers are fundamental contributions to SCPI.

Principles, concepts and constraints

The system that will provide high-yielding and adapted varieties to farmers has three parts: PGR conservation and distribution, variety development and seed production and delivery. The stronger the links among these different parts, the better the whole system will function. Conserved and improved materials will need to be available for variety development, and new varieties will have to be generated at a pace that meets changing demands and requirements. Timely delivery to farmers of suitably adapted materials, of the right quality and quantity, at an acceptable cost, is essential. To work well, the system needs an appropriate institutional framework, as well as policies and practices that support its component parts and the links between them.

The improved conservation of PGR – ex situ, in situ and on-farm – and the enhanced delivery of germplasm to different users depend on coordinated efforts at international, national and local levels1. Today genebanks around the world conserve some 7.4 million accessions. These are complemented by the in situ conservation of traditional varieties and crop wild relatives by national programmes and farmers, and by the materials maintained in public and private sector breeding programmes2. Strong national conservation programmes, combined with the improved availability and increased distribution of a wider range of inter- and intra-specific diversity, will be critical to successful implementation of SCPI.

Technical, policy and institutional issues influence the effectiveness of programmes for crop improvement. A wide range of diverse materials is needed for the pre-breeding of varieties. Molecular genetics and other biotechnologies are now widely used by both national and private sector breeding programmes and can make an essential contribution to meeting SCPI breeding objectives3. The policy and regulatory dimension needs to include not only variety release, but also provisions for intellectual property protection, seed laws and the use of restriction technologies.

The benefits of PGR conservation and plant breeding will not be realized unless quality seeds of improved varieties reach farmers through an effective seed multiplication and delivery system. Variety testing of promising materials from breeding programmes needs to be followed by the prompt release of the best varieties for early generation seed multiplication. Certified seed production, along with quality assurance provided by the national seed service, are essential next steps before seed is sold to farmers. Both the public and private sectors should support this value chain and, where possible, local seed enterprises should produce certified seed and market it to farmers.

Smallholder farmers around the world still rely heavily on farmersaved seed and have little access to commercial seed systems. In some countries, well over 70 percent of seed, even of major crops, is managed within the farmer seed system. Both formal and saved seed systems will be essential in the distribution of SCPI-adapted materials. The various practices and procedures adopted to support SCPI will need to take account of how farmer seed systems operate, and strengthen them in order to increase the supply of new materials.

Ensuring that the different parts of the PGR and seed supply system are able to meet the challenges of SCPI requires an effective policy and regulatory framework, appropriate institutions, a continuing programme of capacity development and, above all, farmer participation. A strong programme of research, aimed at providing information, new techniques and materials, is also important. Ideally, the programme will reflect farmers’ knowledge and experience, strengthen the linkages between farmers and research workers from different areas, and serve dynamic and changing needs.

Download factsheet - PDF, 850Kb
Crops and varieties: approaches that save and grow
  • Improving the conservation and use of plant genetic resources
  • Developing improved and adapted varieties
  • Improving seed production and distribution

The way forward

Actions in the technical, policy and institutional arenas can help ensure that plant genetic resources and seed delivery systems function effectively to support sustainable crop production intensification. Although they will involve diverse institutions and take place at various scales, the required actions will have their greatest impact if they are coordinated. Recommended measures include:

  • Strengthening linkages between the conservation of PGR and the use of diversity in plant breeding, particularly through improved characterization and evaluation of traits relevant to SCPI in a wider range of crops, increased support for pre-breeding and population improvement, and much closer collaboration among institutions concerned with conservation and breeding.
  • Increasing the participation of farmers in conservation, crop improvement and seed supply in order to support work on a wider diversity of materials, to ensure that new varieties are appropriate to farmer practices and experiences, and to strengthen on-farm conservation of PGR and farmer seed supply systems.
  • Improving policies and legislation for variety development and release, and seed supply, including national implementation of the provisions of the ITPGRFA, enactment of flexible variety release legislation, and the development or revision of seed policies and seed legislation.
  • Strengthening capacity by creating a new generation of skilled practitioners to support enhanced breeding, work with farmers and explore the ways in which crops and varieties contribute to successful intensification.
  • Revitalizing the public sector and expanding its role in developing new crop varieties, by creating an enabling environment for seed sector development and ensuring that farmers have the knowledge needed to deploy new materials.
  • Supporting the emergence of local, private sector seed enterprises through an integrated approach involving producer organizations, linkages to markets and value addition.
  • Coordinating linkages with other essential components of SCPI, such as appropriate agronomic practices, soil and water management, integrated pest management, credit and marketing.

Many of those actions are already being taken in various countries and by various institutions. The challenge is to share experiences, build on the best practices that have been identified and tested, and focus on ways to adapt them to meet the specific objectives and practices of SCPI. That will ensure that the diversity required for sustainable intensification, and already available in genebanks and farmers’ fields, is mobilized efficiently, effectively and in a timely manner.



1. Fowler, C. & Hodgkin, T. 2004. Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture: Assessing global availability. Annu. Rev. Envirn. Resour., 29: 143-79.

2. FAO. 2010. The Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Rome.

3. Alexandrova, N. & Atanassov, A. 2010. Agricultural biotechnologies in developing countries: Options and opportunities in crops, forestry, livestock, fisheries and agroindustry to face the challenges of food insecurity and climate change (ABDC-10). Issue paper for the Regional session for Europe and Central Asia – Agricultural biotechnologies in Europe and Central Asia: New challenges and opportunities in a view of recent crises and climate change, Guadalajara, Mexico, 1-4 March 2010.

Save and Grow (FAO, 2011) can be purchased from [email protected]

Save and Grow A policymaker's guide to the sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production (FAO, 2011)
ISBN 978-92-5-106871-7
112 pp. 182 x 257 mm, paperback

How to order this book
Write to: [email protected]

See also...