Action Area focus

Genetic Innovation

The Genetic Innovation Science Group: integration for impact

Genetic innovation – across genebanks, crop breeding and seed systems – has been the mainstay of CGIAR’s local and global impact since its inception. CGIAR’s work on genetic innovation is a tremendous force: 33 collaborative crop breeding networks involve 1,200 partners in 135 countries, developing and delivering improved varieties of 21 crops and forages to small-scale farmers, while nine genebanks conserve 30 crops and 3,000 species, distributing over 50,000 samples per year on request, for research, breeding, and use across the world.

In 2022, CGIAR brought together all crops, geographies, Centers, partners, and stages of the innovation pipeline under the coordinated management of the Genetic Innovation Science Group. We drafted a dynamic theory of change, launched five tightly interconnected Initiatives to drive achievement of ambitious 3-year outcomes, recruited four Senior Directors, articulated an Aide Memoire with our key national and regional partners in Africa, and initiated an active advisory group comprising six System Council funder representatives and six regional experts to challenge and champion our work.

Performance and results along the theory of change in 2022

Figure 1. GI theory of change

More equal and collaborative networks

The GI theory of change assumes that greater benefits to farmers arise from stronger, more collaborative breeding networks. In 2022, we put substantial effort into building inclusive breeding networks among CGIAR, national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES), small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and other partners. We held monthly cross-commodity dialogues among over 100 CGIAR and NARES breeders. For Africa, a high-level stakeholder consultation in Nairobi openly discussed and captured improved partnership approaches in an Aide Memoire, and committed to champion these approaches among leaders and implementers.

Piloted in over 25 meetings, the Aide Memoire and inventory provide a strong basis for collaboration, capacity strengthening, and more equal partnerships, based on an objective analysis of partners’ functions within the breeding pipeline for different crops and regions. Regional Improvement Network meetings for multiple crops took place in West, Central, East and South Africa with national research organizations. National partners set breeding priorities and made final stage advancement decisions. Technical support was provided to 20 collaborative breeding networks across 26 countries in Africa and South Asia, partnering with 38 NARES (Figure 2). Overall, more than 125 demand-driven capacity strengthening events involved 7,600 participants.

Figure 2. Results per country. Source: The CGIAR Results Dashboard based on results for 2022 submitted through the Performance and Results Management System (PRMS). A result can be linked to multiple countries, and therefore be represented multiple times on the map.

In addition, we strongly engaged partners involved in seed maintenance and direct multiplication of cereal products for commercialization, distribution, and targeted adoption. A diverse range of scaling organizations, including private companies (for hybrids and other high-value products), public seed firms (for inbred and large-volume products), SMEs, registered non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community institutions, and farmer producer companies were involved, targeting women and “last mile” delivery.

The Genebank community also worked together to co-identify and respond to capacity needs with NARES partners. In 2022, 38 training events took place in Genebanks and 19 in Germplasm Health Units involving 625 people from more than 50 countries. These included a range of topics catered to regional needs, some of which included data management, seed quality management, cryobanking and other conservation techniques, virus indexing, and workplan development.

Figure 3. Number of partners per country. Source: The CGIAR Results Dashboard based on results for 2022 submitted through the PRMS. A result can be linked to several partners in several locations, and therefore be accounted for several times.

Sharper focus on people’s needs and preferences

GI’s theory of change is oriented to a comprehensive approach to achieving impact – meaning our breeding programs target CGIAR’s Impact Areas, particularly climate, nutrition, and gender. Of the known 303 partner variety releases in 2022 that build on improved CGIAAR germplasm, 73% carry greater climate resilience and/or are supportive of greenhouse gas reducing cropping systems, and 35% are directed towards reducing malnutrition among women and young children. GI established preliminary criteria for gender-intentionality and calculated that 22% of all current breeding pipelines are gender-intentional. Building on this, GI will systematically increase the gender relevance and intentionality of our breeding portfolio.

Also in 2022, GI characterized the full portfolio of market segments, target product profiles (TPPs), and breeding pipelines that GI serves. This is a critical starting point for GI’s future objectives, including agreeing breeding priorities with national partners and aligning investment with impact through pipeline investment cases. In supporting this, clear visualization of returns on investment can empower research leaders and investors to analyze business cases and allocate resources where most impact can be achieved cost effectively. Resultingly, the Priority Setting Dashboard for Genetic Innovation v1.0 was co-developed by the CGIAR Initiatives on Market Intelligence and Accelerated Breeding, with the help of the CGIAR Initiative on Foresight.

Each of GI’s developed TPPs have a unique combination of productivity, adaptation, resilience, quality, processing, and consumer traits. The combined efforts, covering 21 crops and 60 breeding programs, resulted in an inventory of 375 TPPs that are being delivered by 121 breeding pipelines. By establishing TPPs, aligning breeding schemes with TPPs, and increasing on-farm-trialing at scale, NARES-CGIAR-SME networks are establishing systematic feedback loops driven by on-farm performance and farmers’ own assessments. Large-scale on-farm evaluations captured gender-disaggregated farmer feedback in cassava, maize, potato, and rice. These approaches will help to align TPPs with drivers of adoption, ensure candidate varieties confer greater value to farmers, and inform improvements in the gender relevance of the portfolio.

Faster pipelines reaching farmers

In 2022, genomics-supported recurrent selection was implemented in 35% of all NARES-CGIAR-SME breeding pipelines, reducing cycle time in cereals, common beans, and root and tuber crops to an average of 45 months. These faster crop breeding cycles mean higher rates of genetic gain and new varieties reaching farmers sooner. We also developed comprehensive and standardized portfolios of trait discovery and development, an important step towards a data-driven framework for trait prioritization based on market requirements and expected benefits.

To enhance our breeding operations, we have gone beyond new technologies to invest in people and ways of working. In 2022 we established the Breeding Process Model, which provides a joint decision-making structure for collaboration, deployment, and improvement of our processes. Four process improvement teams were launched to build trust by sharing information and decision making, establish institutional knowledge in local settings as validated best practice, and elevate breeding and operational excellence across CGIAR and partners.

Moreover, in 2022, the utility and use of the Enterprise Breeding System (EBS) expanded, facilitating active management of the high-volume datasets characterizing modern breeding. This meant fast turnaround and data flow and that the major decision points in the breeding process can be supported by the best available data and analyses. In 2022, two major versions of EBS were developed, released, and deployed in IRRI, CIMMYT, AfricaRice, and IITA for rice, wheat, and maize. Adoption was supported by an extensive training program, a dedicated Help Desk, and monthly tracking of usage metrics to troubleshoot adoption bottlenecks, setting the stage for expansion to further Centers and NARES. Between April and December 2022, around 2.5 million data points were recorded in the system, with 350,000 new germplasm records. This data, digitized in real-time for direct use, frees staff time and puts predictive breeding within reach.

Enhanced genetic resources

Four CGIAR genebanks reached performance targets for all or part of their collections in 2022. CIAT and IITA joined IRRI in negotiating long-term partnership agreements with the Crop Trust. This meant a substantial portion of the essential operations – running costs to maintain seed collections – will be financed in-perpetuity. In 2022, safety duplication of 41,000 accessions in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and other institutes represented a 17% increase on 2021 numbers. Overall, 78% of the collections are physically and legally available and 83% are safety duplicated, towards our theory of change’s target of 90% by 2030.

CGIAR genebanks continued routine operations to ensure that crop collections are conserved and made available upon request. Seed lots and tissue culture samples were regenerated and multiplied in the field, screenhouse and laboratory (120,000 accessions in 2022), viability tested (76,000), health tested (48,000), and disease cleaned (21,000). Acquisitions (792) were received from Guinea, Mali, Peru, South Sudan, Togo, and French Polynesia. While 57,518 germplasm samples were distributed to 87 countries, with 60% to users outside CGIAR (87% of these went to NARES, advanced research institutes and universities).

In 2022, opening the new Seeds for Life genebank in Rabat, Morocco, and the Future Seeds genebank in Cali, Colombia were GI’s most iconic achievements. These global centers of agrobiodiversity are fundamental to providing breeding programs with the building blocks for accelerating the pipeline of improved varieties to small-scale farmers. Seeds for Life houses the collections of barley, wheat, lentil, and chickpea reconstituted from safety duplicated samples stored at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. After ICARDA’s exit from Syria in 2013, nearly 150,000 duplicated samples were retrieved in batches from the Arctic, regenerated at an accelerated rate, and processed for long-term storage in both locations. Future Seeds has a ground-breaking resilient, high-capacity, low-carbon design and has attained platinum level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Research highlights by Impact Area


In collaboration with the GENDER Impact Platform and gender specialists working across Initiatives, GI embarked on a Gender Strategy to strengthen gender intentionality across the GI portfolio and identify entry points for future work. In 2022, gender intentionality was incorporated across the whole pipeline of GI’s work. The CGIAR Initiative on Market Intelligence, which drives the entire pipeline, worked with gender specialists when developing TPPs to actively consider gender in breeding priority setting. The CGIAR Initiatives on Accelerated Breeding and Market Intelligence worked collaboratively to establish a first set of criteria for gender intentionality in TPPs and market segments across breeding pipelines. This resulted in 22% of all breeding pipelines being defined as gender intentional. Moreover, the breeding stage plan developed by the CGIAR Initiative on Accelerated Breeding formed the basis for gender mapping in breeding teams. Trait discovery and deployment pipelines (TD&D) piloted an approach for defining gender intentionality and gender relevance at the trait level, which will be applied in 2023 to TD&D portfolio traits.

The CGIAR Initiative on Breeding Resources produced a gender inclusion checklist for farm operations to guide station leaders in their improvement efforts. The CGIAR Initiative on Genebanks, which feeds into the pipeline, explored ways of promoting germplasm request management that include gender sensitive approaches. At the end of the pipeline, the CGIAR Initiative on Seed Equal worked to advance equitable access to seed and the design of inclusive seed systems in pilot experiences. Checklists and tools were developed with partners to design gender responsive profiles of varietal preferences, seasonal demand, and identify optimal delivery channels for vegetatively propagated crop (VPC) seed. A global scoping review was conducted to identify gender transformative strategies for inducing seed system actors to deliver affordable, quality seed to women and other unreached socio-economic groups. The strong work on gender intentionality across GI’s whole pipeline in 2022 will continue in 2023 with the introduction of a Genetic Innovation Gender Research Coordinator to further support, guide, and integrate our gender work.


GI recognizes that crop diversity and crop breeding are among humanity’s most powerful tools in getting ahead of climate change impacts on food security. The CGIAR Initiative on Genebanks developed a digital resource to support diversity analyses and germplasm selection, including analyses for climate-related traits.

In developing TPPs, the CGIAR Initiative on Market Intelligence involved climate specialists to assist in identifying and prioritizing key climate-related traits. When using these TPPs, the CGIAR Initiative on Accelerated Breeding and their partners evolved their crop variety development to carry greater climate resilience and/or be supportive of greenhouse gas reducing cropping systems. In 2022, three-quarters of known partner variety releases incorporating CGIAR improved germplasm carried these climate traits. A survey of our research in genetic discovery and deployment showed that a quarter of studies in 2022 addressed climate resilience traits (25%). This climate-conscious breeding work was supported by the CGIAR Initiative on Breeding Resources who provided genomic, phenotypic, and environmental data on climate traits to inform major decision points in the breeding cycle. Here, a sequencing service was established and produced reference genomes to aid the development of standard marker panels for genomic selection, facilitating easy selection of required traits.

At the distribution end of the pipeline, the CGIAR Initiative on Seed Equal made strides in releasing climate-resilient varieties into farmer’s fields. More than 30 climate-resilient rice varieties (alongside other improved traits) were released in South Asia, East and Southern Africa, or exchanged through transnational seed protocols between Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. Further, climate-resilient spring durum and bread wheat lines (also carrying other improved traits) were selected for further distribution of target environments in Africa, via 34 collaborators. These releases were supported by trials of a new tool for variety adoption monitoring. VarScout, which provides information on adoption of climate-resilient traits, was piloted in two countries with local extension and NGO staff inputting data from the field. This data can help prioritize future areas for climate-resilient variety uptake and can provide insight into successful seed distribution and uptake strategies, strengthening the CGIAR Initiative on Seed Equal’s capacity to get improved varieties into more farmers’ fields. GI’s work on climate change in 2022 will be further strengthened in 2023 with the introduction of a Climate Focal Point to support improvements in climate-related impacts across the Portfolio.


Work across the GI breeding pipeline contributes to global environmental health and biodiversity. The CGIAR Initiative on Genebanks conserved 580,000 genetically distinct varieties of 2900 species in 2022. Moreover, the Initiative developed a unique, publicly available, subsetting tool to customize accession subsets according to environmental variables, facilitating breeders’ ability to select and incorporate environmental variables into their breeding work. The CGIAR Initiative on Market Intelligence developed an Institutional Standard to create TPPs, which includes agronomists, plant pathologists, climate specialists, and crop modelers. This standard ensures that environmentally sustainable traits, such as nutrient use efficiency or traits relevant to intercropping, such as shade tolerance, are systematically included in the breeding profiles used in the crop breeding programs. The CGIAR Initiative on Accelerated Breeding’s work takes these environmental traits forward in the development of improved varieties across more than 25 crops.


GI’s contribution to poverty reduction, livelihoods, and jobs starts with the design of TPPs; the CGIAR Initiative on Market Intelligence includes processes for systematic identification and integration of traits that contribute to wider social impact across gender equality, opportunities for youth, and social inclusion. This helps reduce poverty and support livelihoods by acknowledging the requirements of these groups, who often sit at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, and ensuring the delivered traits cater to their needs. Building on this, the CGIAR Initiative on Accelerated Breeding further contributed to poverty reduction and livelihoods through variety development aimed at increasing productivity and disease resistance (among other traits). At the last stage of the pipeline, the CGIAR Initiative on Seed Equal contributes to poverty reduction through facilitating farmers’ better access to quality seed of improved varieties. For example, more than 100 cereal varieties suitable for smallholder livelihoods were scaled through formal and farmer-based seed systems.


One of the main premises of GI’s work is to contribute to nutrition, health, and food security through the development and dissemination of improved crop varieties with nutritious, climate resilient, and productivity traits (among others). Nutrition traits are largely associated with biofortification, particularly for crops with a higher natural occurrence of zinc, iron and vitamin A – micro-nutrients that are commonly deficient in the diets of poor people. Including these traits in the TPPs and crop varieties developed by the CGIAR Initiatives on Market Intelligence and Accelerated Breeding means that more nutritious varieties are available on the market, and that those varieties have increased resilience to climatic shocks, allowing more stable (or increasing) levels of productivity over time. Specifically, of the known 2022 partner variety releases, 35% (105 of 303) were directed towards reducing malnutrition among women and young children. This variety development was dully supported by the CGIAR Initiative on Market Intelligence’s development of a standardized template for designing TPPs, which involved nutritionists, food scientists, and climate scientists, and the CGIAR Initiative on Breeding Resources, which developed new services for nutrition testing with IPFRI-HarvestPlus for zinc and iron.


Header photo: Felistus Chipungu, orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) breeder and scientist with the International Potato Center (CIP) working at a CIP facility in Blantyre, Malawi. Photo by C. de Bode/CGIAR

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