Seed systems as enablers of seed choice

Keynote speech by Michael Keller, Secretary General, International Seed Federation at the “FAO Global Conference on Green Development of Seed Industries,” 4 November 2021

Dear Director-General, Representatives of Countries, Colleagues, and Friends,

Today we are honored to be invited to this conference on “Green Development of the Seed Sector” in order to contribute to the Strategic Framework of the FAO.

The private seed sector sees itself as a partner to FAO and its motto “fiat panis — let there be bread”, as seed is a crucial starting point for food security. Fiat panis should be a unifying driver for the public and private sectors, farmers, civil society, indigenous people. In complementing each other’s actions, we can succeed together.

Plenary session of the FAO Global Conference on Green Development of Seed Industries (4 November 2021) Top to bottom, L-R: Ismahane Elouafi (FAO Chief Scientist), Michael Keller (ISF Secretary General), Jingyuan Xia (Director, FAO Plant Production and Protection Division), Rachel Chikwamba (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa), Hanzhong Wang (VP Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences), Beth Bechdol (FAO Deputy Director-General), Marco Ferroni (Chair, CGIAR System Board), Chikelu Mba (FAO) and Long Mao (CAAS).

In 2009, in the executive summary of the 2nd World Seed Conference, it was stated that “governments are strongly encouraged to implement a predictable, reliable, user-friendly and affordable regulatory environment to ensure that farmers have access to high-quality seed at a fair price and that plant breeding has significantly contributed and will continue to be a major contributor to increased food security”. Reading through the proceedings of the Conference, several attendees were deeply concerned that the outcome of the conference would not be enough to succeed at the level of challenges we were facing. Some important follow-ups took place, but it’s time to go further together.

During the next two days, we will have certainly good exchanges and debates, but I wonder, ten years from now, in 2031, will we be convinced that we have done enough together?

Today I am here to highlight that the seed sector in its diversity of over 8,000 seed companies — family-owned, cooperatives, small, medium-size companies, or multinationals who are active in breeding, producing, and trading hundreds of crops — all share the joint vision of “a world where quality seed is accessible to all, to support sustainable agriculture and food security”.

Perhaps our perspectives and approaches differ in some ways — but business is a contributor to achieving society’s goals, and we are here to stay. The private seed sector, like many other actors present here today, is equally committed and engaged in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. I invite you to take a look, for example, at the Seed Declaration signed by hundreds of companies earlier this year, which outlines the private seed sector’s sustained contribution to the SDGs until 2030 and beyond.

To speak in the name of the private sector is a lot of responsibility. I am speaking for a sector that started in 1740 with horticultural crops, which established the first gene banks in 1800. The private seed sector, aware of its responsibility as a provider of the first and most critical input in sustainable agriculture production, has always seen the conservation and use of genetic resources as highly critical. To address the upcoming challenges, we need to ensure the conservation of genetic resources ex-situ and in situ. The access, use, and circulation of genetic resources is an essential driver to achieve the SDGs.

For the private seed sector, innovation is in our DNA. Continued genetic progress through plant breeding innovation is essential for meeting the challenges of agriculture and food production. We can look back and see that, over the past 50 years, it was the joint effort between public and private sectors that contributed and drove the yield increases up to 90% in different crops, in order to increase food production to feed an increasing population.

Are there many other sectors existing where every year up to 30% (annual turnover) is invested in R&D? Did you know that every year over 2,500 new varieties are released to the market in the European Union alone, over 45,000 varieties are registered in the European catalog, and close to 200,000 are accessible worldwide?

More and more crops, including underutilized crops, are being improved in collaboration between farmers, the public, and the private sector. An example is tcassava in Kenya, where companies are working hand in hand with public research on genetic resources through gene banks, and on seed quality control and resilient seed production systems.

Cooperation is a proven way of making progress on our goals, as we see in many countries where there are efficient partnerships between the private sector and public organizations. These partnerships play a significant role in variety demonstration, scaling out farmer-based quality seed production and out-grower schemes. The scale of production, processing and distribution of quality seed of improved varieties from those sectors has increased over the last years.

Increasing knowledge especially via field demonstrations is critical, to raise awareness of farmers on the variety of seeds available to them. Did you know that for example in Ethiopia, 50,000 smallholder farmers were offered the possibility to choose between landraces and commercial varieties of tomatoes or onions through information and education programs organized by the private sector, and nearly 90% of them switched to commercial varieties as this allowed them to improve their livelihood thanks to increased yield from crops that withstand pest and diseases?

Did you know that in a recent independent dialogue for the UNFSS 2021, co-hosted by the World Farmers’ Organisation (WFO) and ISF, a survey showed that 82% of farmers considered new improved varieties as important to respond to climate change and 81 % of farmers considered it as important for sustainability in the food systems?

Empowering farmers is a mission that the private sector carries out day by day, to develop together the most suitable solution for their needs at the local level. Improved plant varieties enable farmers to harvest better yields amidst the pressure of climate change and limited resources. The seed sector can only succeed if the relationship with the farmers is based on trust and the use of quality seed provides them a sustainable positive outcome.

I could go on and provide many game-changing examples from the ground showing the importance of plant breeding innovation and the contribution of the seed sector. But we are not operating in a vacuum. Our capacity to empower farmers depends on an enabling, predictable, and clear international and national regulatory environment.

For many areas of the seed sector, such as seed quality, varietal identity, certification, and seed health, we have well-defined international standards, agreements and guidelines established by various intergovernmental organizations (OECD, ISTA, IPPC, and others). These instruments form an integral part of the functioning of the seed sector worldwide and have proven beneficial for the agricultural production of those countries that joined these platforms. I call upon governments to join, implement and put in place the relevant systems thereby enabling farmers to have access to high-quality seed and new plant varieties.

The breeding of new varieties is a multi-year long process. Latest breeding methods such as genome editing can speed up this process and make it more efficient. What is even more important is that crops that have been left out of the much-needed breeding progress of the last decades can now get a second chance. Underutilized crops that are important for local communities can now benefit from these new applications.

Nevertheless, we need science-based, proportionate, and predictable national regulations that can significantly lower the uncertainty for developers that are interested in using breeding methods, such as genome editing, as part of their breeding operations. For a globalized agriculture and seed sector, regulatory alignment is also very important as it supports the innovation capacity of developers and enables them to collaborate in research and development on a global scale, facilitates seed movement, and reduces the risk of trade disruptions.

Beyond regulatory frame and seed policies, the contributions of the private seed sector depend on existing infrastructure that enables the supply chain from production to commercialization and ensures the delivery of the right seeds at the right places through local seed production and shipping.

Because while many of us continue to enjoy access to safe and nutritious food, over 800 million people are facing hunger.

Because COVID-19 reminded us again that no country can fully supply farmers with seed of their choice solely from their own production.

Because the UN Food Systems Summit was a yearlong call on the need to transform our food systems, and to transform the food systems we must review also the seed supply system and this cannot be done in a short span of time.

Because the current discussion at COP 26 shows the urgency to act together to mitigate climate change and to protect the world’s biodiversity.

Are we not facing these challenges together?

We have no time to lose to build joint actions at international and national levels, and among the agricultural food value chain actors composed of the private and public sectors, farmers, NGOs, and civil society organizations.

And we need much more than a new normal, as it is often called these days.

Today, we need a bold, novel, inclusive, and better normal where the different layers of seed supply are working sustainably, inclusively, and in an integrated manner to empower farmers through secured seed supply and seed choice.

Can this be a starting point for reshaping the discussion and building a transformative workflow within FAO, based on our complementarity and building on trust?

According to FAO in 2016, “Seed security exists when men and women within the household have sufficient access to quantities of available good quality seed and planting materials of preferred crop varieties at all times in both good and bad cropping seasons”.

I am here to make a call for a unified effort for Seed Resilience to ensure “the adaptability and capacity to contribute to food and nutrition security by making accessible sufficient, diverse, locally adapted, improved, high-quality varieties to all farmers taking into account environmental, health and socio-economic aspects”.

From agro-ecological, regenerative, conventional, organic, to biotechnology-driven solutions in agriculture…you name them, all of them have a role to play but none of them should be structured in an exclusive way. There should be interrelations among various approaches.

Empowering farmers means accepting that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The situation, needs, and preferences of farmers are extremely varied in terms of size, profitability, and activities in different countries, regions, or even smaller geographic areas. Depending on the local seed supply situation, they can benefit at the same time from either landraces or varieties coming from public breeding, community breeding, indigenous seed, or commercial varieties. There is no silver bullet that will solve everything in one go.

Allow me to go even a step further. The FAO defines seed policy as “a statement of principles that guides government action and explains the roles of relevant stakeholders in the coordination, structure, functioning and development of the seed system comprising both formal and informal sectors.”

Therefore, let’s stop comparing or even putting in opposition formal and informal seed systems.

I will not open the debate here on the implementation of Farmers’ Rights at the national level. This important topic is discussed at the International Treaty level and raises many debates, which shows the importance of exchanging and learning from experiences on the ground. One recommendation I would like to make is to not put breeders’ rights and farmers’ rights at odds with each other. This false opposition only gives rise to nonproductive outcomes. Both the UPOV Convention and the International Treaty are working toward the same objective: food security. Let’s work on implementing these internationally agreed conventions in a mutually supportive way so they can fulfill their mission for the benefit of farmers.

In building a bold, novel, and inclusive normal based on Seed Resilience, we should also include a dialogue on “Emergency Seeds”, which is in many countries an important part of seed supply and vital to decrease food insecurity and widespread hunger. Similarly, we need to find a long-term exit strategy for seed supply to stabilize.

This bold, novel, and inclusive normal focused on Seed Resilience would be a real opportunity for the farmers to have Seed Choice.

We need a unified enabling environment through sustainable seed systems at the national level, composed of a diversity of solutions with multiple levels. This requires different stakeholders to work together, by recognizing each other’s strengths and contributions guided by a joint vision and some common principles.

Could this be part of a holistic approach to FAO’s workflow to support discussions at the national level?

Along the lines of moving forward together in a more inclusive way, I would like to highlight the proposal initiated by the Netherlands, the International Seed Federation, the Dutch seed association Plantum, and the Seeds to Food Dialogues organized by UN FSS Food Champion Andrew Mushita, “Towards inclusive and sustainable seed systems for food system transformation”.

Let’s build on existing game-changing examples at the local or national level, and work on elaborating models of finding solutions together. Let’s show that collaboration and a holistic approach could work.

Recognizing our diversity but recognizing that we all can contribute to the SDGs would be a real game changer.

The private sector fully recognizes, like in past, that no single actor can solve alone all the questions raised by this conference, and we hope that we can agree on concrete joint action to move forward to achieve seed resilience as an enabler of seed choice. We have to act now.

Seed is Life.

We work to make the best quality seed accessible to all, supporting food security and sustainable agriculture.