A World of Change

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In a global environment that seems to be changing at an unprecedented pace, leaders question if the traditional tactics used to meet the mission of the International Seed Federation are enough.

Change: to make different in some particular; to make radically different; to give a different position, course, or direction to. Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 

In June, Britain voted to leave the European Union. In November, Donald Trump won the U.S. Presidency. In January, the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could now be resurrected as Japan and Australia are in talks to possibly bring everyone back to the table, sans the U.S. This doesn’t include the half dozen other geopolitical actions that made the headlines in 2016: Brazil and South Korea impeached their presidents, the fall of Eastern Aleppo and the fail of the military coup in Turkey.

Couple those events with the changing communication technologies, such as the immediacy and reach of Twitter, and how policymakers are influenced by public opinion as to how they make decisions.

“Altogether, this represents a huge change in our business environment and creates a great deal of uncertainty,” says Jean-Christophe (JC) Gouache, International Seed Federation (ISF) president.

Additionally, Gouache who is in the first of a two-year term as president notes two other significant trends — the increasing progress in science and increasing concentration and consolidation within the seed industry.

“What is the role of ISF in such a fast-changing world, and how do those changes impact the seed industry?” Gouache asks. “As the world transforms, so must we in our approach to be effective.”

Gouache and ISF Secretary General Michael Keller agree the key priorities set forth by the ISF Strategic Objectives 2016-2020 plan are critical to federation members. These include the international movement of seed, innovation, intellectual property rights, biodiversity and engagement.

Priority #1: Policy

Gouache points out there’s been a fundamental change in the past five years and a shift away from free trade agreements to a more protectionist approach with talk of reinforcing borders, increasing tariffs and purchasing more locally-produced goods.

“Whether we like it or not, there has been a change and it creates questions in terms of the movement of seed,” Gouache says. “We need seeds to move around the world, not only for trade but also for research and production. The movement of seed is more important than ever, and it’s our responsibility to make sure this isn’t threatened.”

Keller says ISF will evaluate each situation where seed movement is at risk and reinforce the importance of easily moving seed in and out of a country.

One example Keller and Gouache point to is Brexit. “Within the European Union, we haven’t had to deal with some of these questions for the past 20 years, in terms of having to register, buy and sell seed in the United Kingdom,” Gouache says.

“Science is moving fast. CRISPR/Cas9 was one of the buzz words in 2016 … the big question is ‘will plant breeders be able to use it?’”
— JC Gouache

One achievement of the past decade was the adoption of a seed-specific International Standard on Phytosanitary Measures by the International Plant Protection Convention last month. Gouache says this is important for the international seed industry because phytosanitary rules can act as non-tariff barriers.

“Adoption was a key first step, and we now urge countries to implement the standard within the given timeframe with the support and expertise of ISF and its national seed associations,” says Keller.

Implementation will be the focus of the Thematic Day on May 25 during the ISF 2017 World Seed Congress, where the publication of a training manual and materials will herald the start of an 18-month implementation period.

Federation leaders also participate in discussions about national seed laws.

Keller points out that it is critical to have new seed laws in place that are conducive to business.

“We recognize that the process of putting seed regulations and seed schemes in place is becoming increasingly arduous,” Gouache says, noting especially in Africa.

With the exception of Kenya, sub-Saharan African countries perform the lowest overall when it comes to plant breeding, variety registration and seed quality control, according to “Enabling the Business of Agriculture 2017,” a new report by the World Bank. The report examines and monitors regulations that impact how markets function in agriculture and agribusiness sectors.

The authors wrote: “Intellectual property rights are often neglected, as one-third of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa do not grant any protection of plant materials or any access to germplasm conserved by public authorities. Regarding the region’s registration process efficiency, more than one-third of sub-
Saharan African countries studied are not registering any improved seed at all. The registration cost for a new maize variety in Sudan is among the highest across all countries studied with an average cost representing 621 percent income per capita.”

Additionally, the authors report this region lacks transparency in seed quality control processes, as many countries don’t have official fee schedules for certification activities the government performs, and in nearly half the countries, third-party certification is not permitted.

Those in East Asia and Pacific and South Asia closely follow countries in sub-Saharan Africa, according to World Bank’s report.

“There’s still a great deal of work to do in setting up the basics of seed schemes in most parts of Asia and Africa,” Gouache says.

To address the challenges countries face in setting up their own seed systems, ISF has fostered cooperation between ISTA, UPOV and OECD under the World Seed Partnership banner. Combining the knowledge and expertise of the four partners, the initiative aims to provide guidance on how to develop an appropriate and effective seed regulatory framework.

Another issue now on the radar of ISF leaders is the practice and use of illegal seed.

In Uganda, tests in 2015 revealed that less than half of the seeds sold as hybrid maize in local markets were authentic hybrid seeds, according to the World Bank report. The authors recognized that high-yielding seed must be available and adopted by farmers to increase productivity and meet food demand. They noted that inauthentic and poor quality hybrid seeds can result in smaller harvests, which ultimately affects farmer’s profitability.

“This is detrimental to the farmers, their families and our seed companies and their reputation,” Gouache says. “We need to have effective regulations in place to deal with the issue of illegal seeds.”

Keller adds that it’s an issue ISF takes very seriously, outlining the action already underway. “We’ve formed a working group to determine the scope and reality of what is happening,” he says. “We need a clearer picture, and that’s why we launched our first global survey this year.” Initial results will be presented at the ISF 2017 World Seed Congress.

“We also need to understand what companies are doing to protect themselves against illegal seed practices — licenses, contracts, intellectual property, communication training, security and enforcement.”

Keller says in the worst cases, up to 40 percent of a particular crop market may be comprised of illegal seed.

Through the working group, which operates under the auspices of the Intellectual Property Committee, ISF aims to: define illegal seed, quantify the threat of illegal seed practices and publish a statement of
principles of best practice.

“We have to raise the bar,” Keller says. “It’s important for us to increase awareness with governments that it’s a problem — the scale of the problem is not the issue, it’s the fact that the problem exists at all. We also need to be more proactive in explaining the importance of certified seed.”

Priority #2: Biodiversity

Other points of uncertainty include war and climate change. The war in Syria jeopardized the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas’ (ICARDA) seed bank in Aleppo.

ICARDA’s collection is especially valuable because it includes seeds from the Fertile Crescent, which spans parts of North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus and west Asia. Additionally, it houses many wild relatives of modern crops such as wheat, barley, lentils and grass pea.

Now ICARDA’s seed bank in Aleppo is completely inaccessible, but fortunately, nearly all the seeds in ICARDA’s bank were duplicated and sent to other banks, including the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway — a site Keller and Gouache visited in February.

“Instances such as this show how incredibly important it is to conserve plant genetic resources,” Gouache says. “Both in situ and ex situ conservation is important. Because the crops we rely on for food are grown in parts of the world, distant to the centers of their domestication, the sharing of genetic material across national borders for research and plant breeding is essential.

“To ensure that these collections of plant genetic resources are preserved for future generations, we need the support of governments and the private seed sector around the world.”

As such, in 2016, ISF led the way with a financial contribution that was split between the Crop Trust and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Keller says he expects the International Treaty’s governing body to make a decision this fall regarding access- and benefit-sharing.

“This decision needs to take into account the business environment,” he says. “If fees are unrealistic and the process is burdensome, then people won’t use it. It’s as simple as that.

“If you think about it only in terms of money, then you’re thinking about it in the wrong way. We need to be really clear that the International Treaty is vital. It’s about genetic resources, diversity and climate change. It’s a key topic for the industry, and we are heavily engaged in discussions around the International Treaty.”

Priority #3: Engagement

“What we do is very dynamic. What we do contributes to finding solutions to global challenges — climate change, health and nutrition, and food security. But we cannot do it alone.”
— Michael Keller

As scientists and plant breeders around the world work to improve productivity and create new varieties that can better withstand today’s stressors and those anticipated in the future, the tools and methods they have at their disposal are advancing.

“Science is moving fast,” Gouache says. “CRISPR/Cas9 was one of the buzz words in 2016. But the big question is ‘will plant breeders be able to use it?’”

Both Keller and Gouache agree that plant breeding innovation is one of, if not the most, important issue ahead of ISF and the seed industry, and engagement and outreach are a huge part of the equation.

Keller says this means engagement among national and regional seed associations, governments and non-governmental organizations, as well as outreach to the general public.

“One of our biggest priorities at hand is communication,” Keller says. “We’re investing more time and more energy in making sure that communication is at the top of our agenda. As communication is intrinsic to what we do, it is essential that we as an industry tune into the changes out there.

“Today, the whole environment we are working in has changed. The communication landscape has shifted. Not only are we engaging more broadly with a multitude of stakeholder groups, but we are also adopting a more agile approach to communications.”

To support these efforts, communications manager, Jennifer Clowes has collaborated with ISF members and partners to develop a set of communication tools to amplify and unify industry voices around the plant breeding innovation conversation.

In parallel with this, ISF has revitalized its social media presence.

“Absence is no longer an option,” Keller says. In this fast-changing world, we need to be responsive and we need to be open to proactively engage with both our followers and detractors on social media.”

Being proactive is something Keller says the entire industry needs to work on.

“The international seed industry is changing: new challenges are emerging, and it’s even more critical that we tackle them together,” Keller says. “The other side of the coin is that challenges can also be opportunities: chances to explore new areas for growth and to try different ways of doing things. It’s critical to keep your eye on the ball to remain relevant in these turbulent times — just don’t stand still is my advice.

“What we do is very dynamic. What we do contributes to finding solutions to  global challenges — climate change, health and nutrition, and food security. But we cannot do it alone. With ongoing engagement with partners and stakeholders to address these challenges, we are working toward a world where quality seed is accessible to all.”

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