Hybrid Seeds: Reaping the Rewards of the Green Revolution

Published on Author Zachary Durkin

ricefieldHybrid seeds, especially in today’s society, often come with a negative connotation. One of the largest producers of genetically-modified seeds, Monsanto, has been the target of criticism for years. Regardless of the perceived “evils” of one corporation, and without delving too much into the politics of the issue, the goal here is to examine the benefits of hybrid seeds in the context of Chinese agriculture. By examining the history of collectivization policies, it becomes apparent that hybrid seeds were an integral part of a larger movement in productivity increases and technological innovation, referred to as the “Green Revolution”.

The increase in productivity caused by the introduction of hybrid seeds can be aptly demonstrated by changes in rice cultivation.

Before the Green Revolution turned around the disastrous effects of the “Great Leap Forward” policies, two varieties of rice dominated rural China, yangxian and huangjiaoxian. These varieties had relatively low output numbers, ranging from 300 to 400 catties per mu, and they were prone to inclement weather.

When the Green Revolution began in the 1950s and 1960s, several new varieties of rice were released for use on the farms. Most of these, including nante and shijie dao, did not live up to expectations, particularly in the face of a limited amount and usage of chemical fertilizers. This was particularly the case with the latter variety, whose developers claimed it could produce upwards of 600 to 700 catties per mu. Without the proper amount of fertilizer, however, farmers were only able to reach numbers around 200 to 300 catties per mu.

The drastic change came with the introduction of nanyou, which translates to “excellent in the south.” This slogan proved to be accurate, and land productivity skyrocketed. This hybrid variety took the Qindong commune by storm, with experimentation to commune-wide implementation taking only three years, from 1977-1979. The results of this change were immediately apparent. This hybrid variety pushed average output in Qindong to 830 catties per mu in 1979. Some farmers reportedly reached levels of 1,000 catties per mu.

The benefits of hybrid seeds do not come without their drawbacks, however. The primary issue with hybridization, and the topic of criticism in the case of Monsanto, is the reproductive success of such strains. The seeds produced by the adult crops cannot be used for next season as they increasingly become cross-hybrids. The farmers only have use of the crop for one growing season, which essentially creates a dependency on the manufacturers of the hybrid seeds, and farmers must purchase new seed constantly. This leaves them vulnerable to the profit-maximizing behaviors of the firm.

Hybrid seeds are not a complete success story, and even recently, there have been widespread issues with the implementation of new varieties. Agricultural authorities in China are reassessing the effectiveness of contemporary hybrids in light of massive crop failure. Yuan Longping High-Tech Agriculture Co, a Chinese hybrid seed provider, has said that it is halting production of the Liangyou 0293 variety, a product that has fallen victim to low yields in the Anhui province. The low yields may be due to the inclement weather and crop disease in the province, but it does not detract from the central theme that is essential to the success of hybridization, constant innovation. Hybrid seed producers in China must constantly evolve their products to withstand changing conditions as well as the changing demands of the farmers.


Li, Huaiyin. Village China Under Socialism and Reform: A Micro-History, 1948-2008. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. Print.


7 Responses to Hybrid Seeds: Reaping the Rewards of the Green Revolution

  1. The success of firms producing hybrid seeds, has inspired counterfeit seeds. Counterfeiters are able to copy seeds without having to spend time and resources on research and development. Zhao Ruxue, a Pioneer seed dealer estimated that over half the seeds on market were counterfeit a few years ago. He believes that this percentage has fallen recently, but still represents a substantial portion of the market. Out of an estimated 8,400 hybrid seed companies, less than 100 hold intellectual property rights. Counterfeiting reduces investment in developing new hybrid strains, since they will simply be copied, and the developer will fail to reap the full profit of new strains.

    Works Cited
    Hicks, Lynn. “Feeding China: Seed Counterfeiting a Challenge.” Des Moines Register. 17 Oct. 2014.
    Nan, Zhong. “Du Pont’s Pioneer Combating Fake Seeds.” China Daily. 23 May 2014.

  2. 1. How many producers? If there’s only one monopoly supplier, then certainly we should be concerned. But if there are many? And they develop hybrids that match local conditions of soil type and growing season?

    2. If not for hybrid seeds, who would develop new strains? Does it pay for individual farmers to invest in R&D? If not, they who?

    3. If pure-bred varieties – cultivars – are subject to a plant disease, then aren’t farmers in an even worse place, as they may have not readily available alternatives?

  3. Food insecurity is clearly a major issue in China, in which hybrid seeds provide somewhat of a solution. While China houses 19% of the world population, they only have 8% of the world’s arable land. The increase in population is matched by a greater increase for food stuffs; therefore, output must be maximized. The recent purchase of swiss company Syngenta for $43 billion suggests China’s agricultural sector is open to new technologies in order to increase crop yield. Syngenta has already helped farmers in India increase production by 30% with the use of their variety of hybrid seeds and techniques. The productivity boost expected from this purchase should decrease China’s reliance on food imports


  4. Hybrid seeds and other GMOs provide more than just more food security to a country. They also provide ways of getting key vitamins in places where those vitamins are not easily obtained and therefore can be crucial to health in more impoverished parts of China. However, much like Apple releasing the new iPhone every year or so, the problem of having to buy the new strain of seeds every year will be a burden on smaller farmers.

    • The point about new strains every year is a good one. It seems like companies could advance a strain slightly each year and try to charge a premium for it. In reality, however, the improvements may be minimal. To the benefit of farmers though, prices should stay competitive if there are many manufacturers. Additionally, farmers are likely not worrying about name brand here. That is, as long as the hybrid seed is reliable and competitively priced, farmers should buy and use it.

  5. Hybrid seed has always been controversial. And food security had always been an issue in China as well. When these two factors collides, it’s a disaster in China. While people around world somehow accept the genetically manipulated food, Chinese still holds a very rigid attitude. Therefore, even hybrid corps might have a higher yield, its market in China is still not that large.

  6. Do you patent hybrid seeds? Or keep the particular breeding sequence a trade secret? My hunch is the later, you have to reveal all the details to get a patent.

    Farmers are likely still used to the idea of being able to replant this year’s seed to get next year’s crop. With hybrids that’s not feasible. So even in the US the adoption took a couple decades; see the pathbreaking work by Zvi Grilliches (a 1957 paper), important both for its content as the seminal paper in the diffusion of technology (what he found for hybrid corn turned out to be true of new ideas in general) and for its breaking new ground in econometric techniques.