Hybrid 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.