ICARDA wheat varieties. Image by Global Crop Diversity Trust via Flickr
The history of seed trade is as old as agriculture. Knowledge based agriculture, including scientific plant breeding, mechanization, commercialization, diversification, and specialization at various stages of agricultural development, led to the emergence and progressive development of an organized seed sector in developed countries. Along the way, the business of producing and marketing seeds expanded; this triggered the establishment of national seed associations to represent and protect the interests of the private seed sector. For example, the American Seed Trade Association, established in 1883, immediately started lobbying to halt those government seed distribution programs competing with the private sector. The growing movement of varieties and seeds across national borders early in the 20th century led to the formation of the International Seed Trade Federation (now International Seed Federation-ISF) in 1924 to streamline the international seed trade. In developing countries, the shift from a development oriented, formal seed system dominated by the public sector to a more diversified market oriented system led to the emergence of the private sector too. Such diversification paved the way for the emergence of interest groups which needed representation within the national seed industry, thus giving birth to national seed associations.
Role of seed trade associations
The seed sector is a complex one for policy makers. Seed has a number of functions in society:
- Basic inputs for crop production and, thus, an important part of food security and rural development policies
- New varieties are a starting point for innovation in agriculture and horticulture, and seed is thus an issue in innovation policies
- Seed is a commodity that may be commercialized, making seed the subject of commercial policies
- Seed is a carrier of biodiversity and is thus linked to environmental policies.
Seed associations can present clear views to policy makers on behalf of their members.
Effective partnerships: A seed association represents the interests and protects the rights of its members.Thus an association should have sufficient expertise to be an effective partner to policy makers at the national, regional, and international levels. It should discuss possible bottlenecks and provide solutions to emerging issues to create a healthy seed industry.
In most countries, the seed sector is highly regulated, and seeks to protect farmers from planting sub-standard seed, and, at the same time,create a level playing ground to prevent cheap, low quality seed suppliers creating undue competition within the seed industry. An effective seed association can help frame an effective regulatory framework limiting excessive costs arising from any inefficiencies of the public sector. The framework would address variety registration, intellectual property rights (IPR) protection, seed quality assurance, and phytosanitary issues. It should facilitate healthy functioning of the seed sector and representation to the relevant bodies of the seed industry.
Service provisions: Apart from creating a window for discussion with policy makers, seed associations can also provide various services for their members. These may range from market data collection and information exchange, to services related to joint quality control and legal advice to strengthen the capacity of its members.In addition, many seed associations create a platform for their members to establish priorities for pre-competitive research programs that the government may (co-)finance.
Impartial representation: Seed associations have to resolve some challenges with respect to finance, capacity, and representation. Any seed association that represents the private sector ideally has to be financially independent from other stakeholders, such as government and farmers. This means that it should run on contributions from the members.This can only happen if the members see the need for such an association – that they get back enough for their money in terms of services even though the returns on their investments may not always be measured in monetary terms. It has to be borne in mind that a seed association brings together competitors in the market, who have some opposing interests, but who definitely have parallel interests on many fronts. Discussions on contribution levels and voting rights are issues in such associations. The level of funding is directly linked with the capacity of the association to involve itself in relevant debates. Associations can have several staff themselves,or use specialists from member companies to represent the industry on specific issues. The latter is very common, but in order for such individuals to represent all it is essential that the association itself has sufficient capacity to determine industry positions on policy issues. In countries where a large share of the seed is produced by public enterprises, the representation becomes even more complex, especially where these associations cannot take policy positions independently from their parent ministries.
Regional and global linkages: Seed associations often collaborate and participate in regional and global associations, such as the International Seed Federation. The difference between national and regional associations is that the national associations have a clear target for their lobbying – the national governments. For most regional associations the target is less clear. Many operate mainly as a platform for national associations and regionally operating companies, preparing policy positions that they can put to their target groups.
Ideally, regional seed associations are dependent on strong national organizations. It is important that such regional and international associations do not voice the positions of internationally operating seed companies only, as these may, in some cases, have different interests from the locally operating companies. In summary, seed associations have an essential role to play in the development of a mature seed industry in any country. Governments should be happy with a well-informed seed association even when their positions in relevant policy issues differ. It is the task of an association – while representing the interests of the members – to contribute to solutions to problems arising at the policy level.
By: Niels P. Louwaars, Plantum-NL, Rotterdam, Netherlands; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
From: (Seed Info, No. 42, January 2012), courtesy ICARDA, a member of the CGIAR Consortium.
Editors Note: Africa’s has over 27 national seed trade associations, represented at a continental level by the African Seed Trade Association (AFSTA), based in Nairobi, Kenya.