Mike Graham

Improving Lives through Better Harvests Series: Seeds of Smallholder Success

As a third-generation plant scientist, I had a lot of influential moments growing up that made me pursue a career in agriculture. My father was a plant breeder focused on developing solutions and products for smallholder farmers.

His work had a tremendous impact on me, as it allowed our family to live in countries like India and Colombia where I could see firsthand how critical agriculture is to the socioeconomic fabric of the region. My brother and I would often go to the field and help our dad with his research trials where we were exposed to the challenges of running experiments in the field, the importance of new technology in accelerating product development, the complexity of changing established agricultural practices with new ones, and we learned the importance of collaborating with individuals from diverse backgrounds to successfully establish and complete a project. These experiences still stick with me today as I lead Bayer plant breeding organization in developing tailored solutions for farmers around the globe who are facing different challenges season after season.

For most smallholder farmers, a successful season means the difference between having food for the year or going hungry. When you consider that much of the population growth predicted over the next 30 years will occur in countries where smallholder farming is the standard, the pressure only mounts. Addressing the challenges that smallholder agriculture faces is critical to our global efforts to combat hunger. At Bayer, our goal is to go beyond empowering smallholder farmers to reach their full potential, by also fostering reliable growth for their businesses, their communities, and their livelihoods. All while supporting sustainable solutions for agriculture.

Mike Graham Headshot
Mike Graham Headshot
Mike Graham
Head of Plant Breeding
corn
corn
For most smallholder farmers, a successful season is the difference between having food or going hungry; we can make a difference to help stabilize their income.

Critical to tackling the many and diverse challenges of smallholder farmers is the establishment of successful public-private partnerships. Like other companies in the ag industry, we are committed to driving innovation into new seed markets and partnering with other organizations to improve product quality. For me, one of the best examples of this effort is Water-Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) in Sub-Saharan Africa. By combining a diversity of skills and advanced breeding techniques, WEMA has worked for the past decade to deliver drought-tolerant seed varieties in five Sub-Saharan countries with the goal of improving harvests by 20 to 35 percent on average. With more than 5,200 tons of improved seed products sold royalty-free through the program thus far, WEMA has had success in bring new hybrids to growers. Collaboration with local partnerships was critical to the success of this project. And while the success continues with the breeding efforts, I am excited to see the appetite for biotechnology grow stronger with smallholder farmers as they witness the benefits the technology brings to manage production risks. We are actively working with regulators in Africa to make new hybrids with biotech traits to smallholder farmers.

women with corn baskets
women with corn baskets
I am proud to be part of an organization that uses science to better life.

While progress through WEMA has been extraordinary, many opportunities exist in other key food security crops. Our work with The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) is another example of a great public-private partnership. IITA is working with West African National Research Systems, to support the nutritional and economic security of smallholder farmers by developing improved farmer-preferred varieties of cowpea that are resistant to pests and disease. Modernizing the IITA and national breeding programs will help to expand and speed up breeding pipelines by building the capacity of local breeders to evaluate new products with greater precision. At Bayer, we are providing technical support and mentoring to assist IITA in modernizing the National Cowpea Breeding programs, as well as learning so much from local scientists about the challenges they faced in these local markets. We share through this partnership expertise in modern plant breeding methodologies, quality seed systems, stewardship, and business skills. This partnership is building modern information management systems, helping to institutionalize cost-effective molecular marker breeding approaches, and ultimately to optimize and refine their breeding pipeline for the future. It’s amazing to take our learnings from previous partnerships like WEMA, and apply them to other important crops.

Both WEMA and IITA are examples of the dozens of public-private partnerships that we focus our plant breeding efforts to deliver improved seed varieties to smallholder farmers. With the array of challenges involved in the process, continued strong partnerships are critical to make additional inroads. We recognize that smallholder farmers can have a big impact in eradicating hunger in ways that are sustainable for the environment and their communities. Thanks to the tremendous efforts and achievements of these public-private partnerships, we’re making progress to sustainably deliver seeds that can help improve harvests, reduce hunger, and improve economic conditions. I am proud to be part of an organization that participates in a range of public-private partnerships that are devoted to supporting smallholder farmers around the world. I believe together we can create shared value, support sustainable agriculture, and make our contribution to improve lives through better harvests.

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Thriving for Change - Championing Agriculture for a New Generation