From the World Bank to the Gates Foundation and from the International Plant Protection Convention to national plant protection organizations, the International Seed Federation must work to identify areas of agreement and build from there — making quality seed accessible to all.
“A world where quality seed is accessible to all,” that’s the vision of the International Seed Federation (ISF). Instrumental in leading the working group that was responsible for redefining the federation’s mission and vision a few years ago, Jean-Christophe (JC) Gouache says that while the vision has not changed, the environment in which those in the seed industry work is constantly changing.
At the time, Gouache was serving as first vice president and ISF was working toward the development of its Strategic Objectives 2016-2020. Today, Gouache is wrapping up his two-year presidency.
“Since then, agriculture and farming systems have come under increased pressure from a multitude of points,” Gouache shares, pointing to society, resources, climate change and the workforce. “We have to be better at producing more with less.”
But that concept is nothing new; those in the agricultural industry have long been aware of that mantra. It’s the culmination of pressure points and the urgency around it that’s new, and this has put the seed industry in the spotlight.
“What is the No. 1 factor that can relieve part of those pressures?” Gouache asks. “It’s genetics. It’s plant breeding. The seed sector plays a significant role in delivering solutions to improve all types of farming systems.”
The diversity of farming systems across the globe is immense, spanning from smallholder farmers living on a few dollars a day with maybe one hectare to those with thousands of acres and operating multimillion-dollar businesses, and everything in between.
Regardless of size, Gouache says genetic progress is delivered to farmers through seeds. “It’s all about plant breeding innovation and the global movement of seeds,” he says, noting that very concept is the foundation for ISF’s vision and mission. “Everything we do at ISF is according to the strategic plan, which includes five priority areas: innovation, movement of seed, intellectual property rights, biodiversity and engagement.”
Diversity is Everywhere
The same diversity among farming systems can be seen across the board, from seed systems and governments to policies and enforcement, and from culture and beliefs to business models and funding.
ISF Secretary General Michael Keller recently traveled to India.
“There’s such incredible diversity within their industry,” he shares. “There’s also diversity in China as they are trying to move forward, and there are lots of dynamics at play. Regardless of the region, I’ve seen the constant need for the industry to come together and discuss regulations, especially those around intellectual property and seed systems.”
But there is growing diversity in perceptions of government regulations, Keller says, making it difficult to get international agreement on almost anything.
“Parties are less willing to compromise, which means it’s not easy to find the consistency we look for to achieve harmonization across countries with a balanced and science-based approach to regulation to make quality seed accessible to all and give choice to farmers,” he says. “Diversity of opinions is growing and the recognition of seeds as the most important input in crop production, and that’s wonderful to see, but that same diversity makes it less and less feasible to get agreement on any issue at the international level.
“Even though we’ve had great successes during the past two years and are making great strides with the support of seed associations, from my perspective, the tough work is just beginning.”
Keller is referencing the strategic engagement that’s needed to move the five priority areas forward.
Gouache explains that the secretariat and section and committee leaders have been working to move conversations from seed-centric circles to key external stakeholders and beyond.
Plant breeding innovation is an excellent example of this, he says, pointing to the development of position papers, presentations, and a number of communications documents to engage government leaders and policymakers.
Since last year, Keller says they’ve developed a position paper, which is up for adoption at the 2018 World Seed Congress. “This means we’ve got another round of increasing awareness around plant breeding innovation, another round of communication with our stakeholders, and another round of exchanges with key governments,” Keller says.
Key governments include, but are not limited to, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Japan, South Africa and South Korea.
“We have been strategically coordinating our outreach efforts. A list of frequently asked questions has been developed, along with a PowerPoint presentation for national specificity,” he says. “All of these tools are in English; however, to further enhance the uptake of these tools and increase understanding around plant breeding innovation, critical documents have been translated.”
Keller says that’s one of the key things he’s learned during the past year: the importance of being able to efficiently explain plant breeding innovation and get that same message integrated within local circles. “We must take into account the diversity on the ground, and that means languages,” he says.
Another example requiring intense and strategic engagement is that of illegal seed practices.
“We must work with all stakeholders and governments to fight against illegal seed practices,” Keller says, adding that ISF seeks to engage with representatives from the OECD Seed Schemes, World Farmers Organization, FAO, the World Bank, or for example the World Trade Organization.
Furthermore, ISF will ask for NGOs, such as the Anti Infringement Bureau, the Seed Infringement Bureau, the Gates Foundation and the International Landowners Association, to support this engagement, in coordination with national seed associations, at the national level.
“Companies are looking for more and more partnerships and cooperation,” he says. “For us, as an association, we’ve been emphasizing the importance of engaging with other stakeholders, such as the above-mentioned Gates Foundation.
“Yes, they are a foundation, but with a clear focus on seeds. We need to understand what they are doing and how they do it. Our goals are the same: to give choice to farmers and bring best quality seeds to farmers. How we try to achieve that may differ. There’s also Plant Breeders without Borders, Fair Planet, Crops for the Future and the Syngenta Foundation, with whom we have opened dialogue. We haven’t taken these into account in the past, but now we are.
“As you can see,” Keller says, “it’s important that we are able to work at a number of levels with partners to achieve the dream that we can make all kinds of quality seed available — seeds of all varieties accessible to all. Yes, we support more private breeding in Africa. Yes, we support more public breeding in Africa.
“We must engage on all these fronts to make quality seed accessible to all. It’s about the whole value chain, from the millers to those in the grain trade. We, in the seed industry, are just the starting point.”
Perspective from ISF’s President
With more than 20 years as a member of the Limagrain Executive Committee, Jean-Christophe (JC) Gouache was asked to join the International Seed Federation (ISF) Executive Committee eight years ago, first as chair of the Breeders Committee, and later moving from second vice president to first vice president and president. His career trajectory looks very similar. He started with Limagrain as a corn breeder and today serves as corporate vice president for international affairs with Limagrain Group. He also serves as vice president of the High Council for Biotechnology in France, is a member-at-large of the European Seed Association Board and a board member of the French Seed Association.
As Gouache wraps up his two-year term as ISF president, he reflects on his involvement within ISF.
“In the success of a business, 50 percent comes from business and another 50 percent comes from the business environment,” Gouache says, attributing that to another ISF leader and standing by it. “I’ve always considered it part of my job for Limagrain to interact with my peers and contribute to the business environment.
“It’s been personally satisfying, and I’ve enjoyed doing it. I’ve been able to see first-hand the role seeds and genetics play around the world. If at the end, I can say I contributed very little, I would be happy. I’m also a manager who believes in developing people. It’s been very gratifying to help a young, new team to grow and serve the interests of the seed industry.”