Unblocking Regulatory Hurdles Limiting Availability of Quality Seed of Superior Varieties
The availability of quality seed of superior varieties is fundamental for increased agricultural productivity. For millennia farmers have selected and shared seed among themselves leading to the development of well adapted landraces, but traditional seed management practices are not keeping pace with the needs of an ever-increasing population, increased weather variability, the introduction of new pests and diseases through international movement of goods and people, and changing consumer preferences.
Modern plant breeding using the latest scientific methods has led to an acceleration in the development of new varieties, but the time to market has been delayed by bureaucratic procedures that both constrict supply and add to the cost of seed. National governments have required that new varieties be formally released after prolonged testing in each country despite common growing conditions that transcend political boundaries. In addition, seed production standards vary between countries and seed movement across borders has been restricted by the need to ensure seed is free of pests and diseases even though these exist on both sides of a border and in most cases are not seed borne.
To overcome the barriers to seed trade, several regional economic communities — including the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) — have all agreed on seed trade harmonization, which includes the simplification of variety release procedures, adoption of common seed certification standards and the elimination of common pests and diseases from regional pest lists where these already exist across borders and are not seed borne. The benefits to farmers are significant: new varieties get to market quicker and commercialization costs are reduced, with the result that farmers have increased choice on what to plant. In Senegal, hybrid maize varieties developed in Mali are now being multiplied without the need for further testing and release as the growing conditions in both countries are similar. Irish potato varieties developed by commercial companies in Europe have been registered on the COMESA Plant Variety Catalogue and are beginning to be multiplied in response to the growing urban demand for processed potato products that require varieties with specific processing traits.
Despite the political will for seed trade harmonization, implementation has been slow. Seed regulatory organizations, which are predominantly publicly funded, have not been able to keep pace with the expansion of the commercial seed sector following liberalization that took place as a result of structural adjustment programs in the 1990s. As a result, seed quality is compromised when grain is substituted for seed or quality standards are not adhered to. To address these threats that are of concern both to seed regulatory agencies and reputable seed companies, there is a move toward the commercialization of seed inspection and seed testing and enhanced collaboration between public regulatory agencies and commercial seed companies represented through the emergence of national and regional seed trade associations. In South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, independent seed inspectors licensed by the public regulatory organizations are already operating, and in Kenya, training of independent seed inspectors has started. Attention is now being given to accreditation of seed companies with quality assurance systems, ensuring traceability all along the seed value chain and streamlined document handling. Such systems exist in many other spheres, such as electronic tickets and online check in for air travelers and in fresh food value chains.
Attention now needs to focus on implementation that capitalizes on the avaiability of information and communications technology (ICT) to open up seed certification and quality control to commercial service providers while ensuring transparency all along the seed value chain from production to market. Public regularory agencies will continue to have an important oversight role as well as provide technical support through training and mentoring.