Market-driven Varietal Testing and Positioning in Seed Chain

A transformative approach under IRRI’s Product Development and Varietal Replacement Strategy

Swati Nayak * Mosharaf Hossain ** Kuntal Das ***

Innovation Credit: AGGRi (Accelerated Genetic Gain in Rice) and One Rice Breeding

A country like India has a strong history of rice breeding programs that led to the development of thousands of varieties targeting different rice ecosystems released by the national systems. More than 350 of these are under active cultivation as shown in the national breeder seed indent roster and three-year average. A new variety offers added values and benefits to farmers and other seed chain stakeholders like millers and consumers. Thus, a new variety is supposed to be superior to farmers’ existing varieties in a particular target environment. Even though enormous effort and resources are put into a product development program, many developed varieties are not commercially adopted or scaled by farmers. The slow-paced diffusion results in a low varietal turnover.

The varietal adoption scenario in the major rice-growing and rice-consuming belts of Eastern India remains problematic. Despite the advent of several promising genotypes, the seed demand of farmers is highly concentrated on a few older varieties—Swarna, MTU1010, MTU 1001, IR 64, Naveen, Sahabhagi dhan, and Swarna-Sub1—based on the breeder seed indent in the last three years. These few varieties constitute about 35% of the overall breeder seed indent in the country (considering that around a thousand varieties have been released).

Improving variety and seed replacement rates is a policy priority for boosting the low productivity of rice. Interestingly, although there is no dearth of new products, the deployment of the newer varieties is not well planned. Over the years, this has created a disconnect between breeders, extensionists, and farmers limiting the impact intended.

Farmers’ preferences for a variety are a diverse, dynamic, and complex phenomenon and there is no one-size-fits-all product that caters to the needs of all farmers. The other key actors (millers, dealers, consumers) who play essential roles in the seed chain influence the scaling of the product as well. The traditional extension system does not include the multi stakeholder approach rationally, causing incorrect product positioning.

At the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), we continue to improve and innovate to build an adoption mechanism that matches the needs of the farmers, breeders, and other stakeholders in the seed chain. Defying several operational challenges posed by the pandemic, IRRI launched a well-conceived, market-driven varietal advancement and positioning approach to test and promote best-fit products in Odisha in a targeted manner.

A market-driven product management

The approach includes wide-scale experiments and validation of a new product in pre-determined and priority market segments categorized by agro-ecological, trait, and other parameters. This positions a targeted market in a staged manner. The performance of a new product or test variety is compared to a benchmark (the best-known product in the segment) and the local varieties identified for replacement specific to the target market segment. Crop establishment methods, ecology, maturity duration, grain size are the major determinants in defining a market segment.

The products nominated by breeders every year can be grouped into different segments. One segment makes the varietal evaluation and positioning efforts scientifically comparable and technically tenable based on data, information, and insight. The products are validated within each market segment through multi-location on-farm trials managed under farmer-field conditions. Pre-defined product concepts (developed by IRRI), a tool and blueprint for developing better products by breeders, formed a guiding document to screen product advancement criteria for seed chain actors.

IRRI’s global rice breeding strategy encompasses 24 major or priority market segments. These priority segments represent the major demands so that the breeding and product advancement efforts remain targeted to the needs and demands of majority stakeholders.

Eastern India is one of the main rice-growing regions of India. This region comprises the states of Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP), Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and West Bengal. Characterized by heavy rainfall, rice in this region is mainly grown in rain-fed conditions in the basins of the Ganga and Mahanadi Rivers. Based on policy priorities, our target states, and operational ease, we selected Odisha, Bihar, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh for the advanced on-farm trials of newer genotypes or test varieties.

Following an inter-disciplinary deliberation on prominent market segments in the target states, six segments were chosen for the 2021 wet season. Out of these 24 segments, six segments are deployed in these four selected states. This whole initiative in eastern India is a part of Accelerated Genetic Gain in Rice (AGGRi), the current global flagship around breeding and seed system innovations, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF).

These segments are denoted as DELS-R/U, TEMS-I, TLaMF-Deepwater, TLaSF-R, TMeL-I, and TMeM-. The state-wise distribution of on-farm trials (OFT) under different market segments is tabulated below.

OFTs for specific market segments

Based on the eco-spatial analysis, the number of OFTs per product group (market segment) was optimized as a major pre-season preparation. The most representative locations for the targeted segment were selected from the state in focus. Subsequently, we selected innovative and keen farmer hosts identified by our partner network in the community.

Each market segment had approximately 30 trials to ensure reliable analysis. Each trial within a market segment was composed of a test variety, benchmark varieties, and local varieties (sometimes referred to as “farmers’ checks” or “replacement targets”). All these varieties were laid out in a trial using a 200 square meters strip adjacent to each other with the necessary space between two varieties. The area and outline of each plot under a trial were constant and fixed as per the dimensions, measurements, and position of the farmer's land. A trial typically had 5 to 6 varieties for the experiment.

Apart from that, targeting necessary policy and sub-national and national programs support the advancement, scaling of new and promising varieties, and release of pipelines (wherever applicable). Each federal state had their required data points (for statistical reliability) by grounding the required number of trials in appropriate market segment for each of the state/ province.

A collectivized and integrated effort: Test variety nominations from NARES

Before the onset of the wet season, we discussed the selection of varieties, market segments, geographies with breeder-scientists from key NARES partners followed by test variety nominations from the NARES breeding networks including the National Rice Research Institute, Indian Institute of Rice Research, Agricultural Research Station (Maruteru), Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology, Banaras Hindu University, Bihar Agriculture University, Dr. Rajendra Prasad Central Agriculture University, Research Complex for Eastern Region, Patna, Central Rainfed Upland Rice Research Station, Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwavidyalaya, and Regional Agriculture Research Station .

Thirteen agencies nominated more than 50 products for testing through OFTs, of which 27 were selected. Nominations included recently released products, advanced lines, and pre-released genotypes being evaluated in the All India Coordinated Trial by the national system.

The final selection of nominations considered the age of the product (not more than 5 years), suitability into the demand/ priority market segment (based on national data), and seed availability with breeders for enough number of trials.

Market segmentation of the nominated products

Detailed profiling was done for all newly nominated products. The benchmark and replacement targets were grouped with new nominations based on the existing global product profile repository of IRRI, a database generated through AGGRi. Subsequently, nominations were bucketed into a globally defined most-fit segment. A few nominations that have slight variations in the product features and do not fit perfectly in a market segment were assigned to the next closest segment. Thus, the six priority segments represented the major rice-growing ecologies in Odisha.

Use of Biometrics for optimization of trials

With a geography spanning over different rice-growing environments and millions of farmers in as much as 30 districts and numerous products from modern breeding programs, the appropriate strategies for optimization of resources, data quality, and generating reliable evidence are of great importance.

Using weather data, eco-spatial modelling determined the ideal number (20) per each critical cluster representing a targeted market. For the targeted state, the revenue block formed a geographical cluster to focus on the targeted market segment. The most representative block was selected for the specific segment/product group. As a contingency in case of crop loss due to severe weather, 30 trials were laid out per cluster per segment.

Implementing partners

We selected some of the local community based organizations partners with a strong connection with farmers and are engaged in crop-based livelihood promotion activities. The partner staff and data enumerators assigned to the OFTs were trained on trial management and data collection. Currently, the field managers are collecting crop growth data using the Kobo tool. A standard operating procedure was also developed as a guidance document and circulated among all partners and staff. The data collected are being closely monitored for quality and onward analysis by the breeding analyst.

The field insights

Currently, the crop is in the field. Farmers who participated in this market-driven OFT trials expressed positive opinions.

“This is the first occasion I am cultivating five varieties in my plot on an experimental basis,” said Tejraj Sha, a farmer from the Sohela Block of Bargarh District. “This will help me choose the best ones.”

A unique trial will spread information about new varieties, according to Triloachan Naik from Sambalpur District. “I have never seen such unique trials of 5 to 6 varieties in a single plot,” he said. “Fellow farmers and others are receiving varietal information because my plot is located by the roadside.

Dr. Prashanta Kumar Mohanty, deputy director of the Agricultural Technology Management Agency in Bargahr, hailed the market-driven product advancement as a promising approach and encouraged conducting field days for maximum dissemination of varietal information among farmers.

Moving ahead

In the coming seasons, more nominations and market segments will be included.

Intensive engagement with NARES breeders will be conducted for a defined product advancement path.

The trial data and insights will be shared with state departments and other agencies for the promotion of best-fit varieties.

*Swati Nayak is a scientist and the South Asia Lead for Seed System and Product Management at IRRI

**Mosharaf Hossain is a Seed System and Product Management specialist at IRRI India

***Kuntal Das is a Seed System and Product Management senior specialist at IRRI India

For more info on IRRI’s seed system initiatives, you may contact s.nayak@irri.org