Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

3. The seed sector and food security

The responsibility for supplying seed throughout the region was formerly assigned to the public sector; now “privatized” state enterprises run the activity, with private companies operating in certain segments of the market for particular species or varieties (e.g. hybrid maize, or some vegetables). However, in countries like Kazakhstan, the state enterprises hold a quasi-monopolistic position.

The formal seed supply system delivers certified seed to farmers, and farmers save part of the harvest for planting the next crop, in line with their customary seed replacement rate. Seed certification and quality control services are provided by the public sector throughout the region.

Due to the economic constraints that have prevailed in the agricultural sector during the last decade, many farmers have modified their seed replacement rate by delaying the period for purchasing new seed. Procurement or exchange of seed from other farmers in the community must have increased to the point of developing an embryo informal seed supply system. It is not clear if this system includes indigenous strategies used by farmers to improve the quality and quantity of seed (i.e. with full breeding activities) to make it a free-standing system. The information obtained so far indicates that the system relies on breeder seed developed by the formal system. However, compared to other regions (Africa, Near East, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia (excluding the countries reviewed here)), the formal system is still the major source of supply for farmers.

3.1 Legislation and public structures for the formal seed supply system in the region

The formal seed supply system in the region originated from the common pattern that prevailed in centrally planned economies. The entire sector was directed and controlled by the state, from seed breeding to actual supply, and to the organization and management of farm units. This explains the importance of that system and the fact that it is considered as the only one existing in the country.

With transition, it became necessary to regulate the sector and the role of new parties through seed laws and operating regulations. Most countries in the region started to draft such legislation and to submit it to their respective parliaments for approval. In most countries, the drafting and approval process was slow. Approved laws and regulations had to be modified at least once, in order to incorporate amendments that took into account the requirements of the market and of international schemes and rules (e.g. OECD, ISTA) to which the country had acceded meanwhile. The process did not always call for contributions or views from all parties in the seed sector; this generated criticism and may be a source of concern in the future. A number of countries received assistance from international organizations (e.g. FAO) for drafting or improving their seed law. The legislative system in the Russian Federation with regard to agriculture in general, and to the seed sector in particular, is still not clear. Though, in theory, appropriate laws were promulgated and various decrees passed, seldom, if at all, have these legal instruments been enforced.

The liberalization of the internal seed market with the multiplication activity of imported seed required new legislation addressing the issue of Plant Breeder’s Rights (PBR). Progress in this area has been very slow and this has delayed the full development of any large-scale private breeding activity in the region.

In all countries, the state has retained a regulatory role, assigning to government institutions the responsibility for testing and evaluating new varieties proposed by breeders and for registering them as improved cultivars in a national list, if they meet all prescribed requirements. In some countries, the institution is assisted by a consultative committee of independent experts. However, the final decision often remains with the Ministry of Agriculture or its equivalent, where appeals can be lodged in case of refusal.

The registration of an improved variety in countries like Poland also means that the seed is automatically released for multiplication. Where this is not the case, the date of the release and the quantity of seed to be multiplied have to be authorized separately.

The inspection of seed producers’ fields, control of the quality of seed marketed and inspection of processing plants remains the responsibility of the state, through an inspecting institution with some decentralized laboratories throughout the country (usually one per district or administrative region). In some countries, in order to avoid conflicts of interest, this institution reports directly to the Ministry of Agriculture and not through the structure of the Ministry of Agriculture, in view of the Ministry’s range of responsibilities in the formal seed sector.

The supply of seed has generally ceased to be the responsibility of the state. Farmers have to use the market and privatized state enterprises where these have the monopoly of supply. However, in order to market and sell their seed, enterprises need an authorization from the state and are subject to inspection by the designated institution. In some countries, the purchase of improved seed has been subsidized by the state in order to ensure, through good yields, an adequate level of production. Those subsidies have sustained, indirectly, also the breeders and the producers of good seed.

Countries that export seed must meet prescribed international standards, and so those countries have equipped their seed inspection and control institution with laboratories that can certify when those standards are met. Imported foreign seed must meet prescribed sanitary and quality standards; controls are carried out by customs authorities and by the relevant inspection institution when the product is marketed.

3.2 National seed policies

All governments in the region are aware of the importance of good quality seed in contributing to increased agricultural productivity and production. Therefore, the principal seed policy of governments of the region has been to ensure a continuous and wide use of high quality seeds.

With the transition, the focus has moved to a less monopolistic role of the state and to establishing a basis for the private sector to develop. Nonetheless, factors internal to the seed sector, as well as external constraints, have required continuing public involvement.

Some countries have felt the need for, or have already established, advisory committees providing general policy guidance on issues concerning the formal seed sector. In countries like Poland, the seed trade association has taken the initiative to develop and propose a strategy for the entire sector. However, due to demands of structural adjustment programmes, most governments are at present cutting subsidies to the seed sector. As a result, government involvement in providing agricultural inputs, marketing, and research and extension services is being reduced. These changes have led to a greater emphasis on privatization of the seed supply sector. However, if not economically justified, private seed companies may not deliver seed to farmers living in marginal areas.

National policies include full observance of the principles of the preservation of genetic resources, the maintenance of national germplasm collections and - to the extent possible - of breeding activity. This derives from the belief that agriculture was and remains a strategic sector. Also, the seed inspection and control function is firmly considered as a function to be assigned to the public sector. There is no indication that seed policies recognize or support the informal seed sector where it exists.

3.3 Breeding and seed research

Plant breeding

In general, agricultural research activities have been centrally planned and entirely state financed, with research activities carried out by universities or similar institutions and by institutions that report directly to the Ministry of Agriculture. However, there are cases, such as in Hungary, where research institutions report to the Academy of Sciences. Universities focus more on the fundamental and theoretical issues, while other research institutions focus on applied research.

With the transition and the serious lack of resources, the number of agricultural research institutions has declined in many countries, including the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Some of those that remain have become private (e.g. owned by the former staff), others survive with financial support from the Ministry of Agriculture and from income generated by their own activities. In other countries, such as Kazakhstan, the agricultural institutes continue to belong to the state, but with minimal activities due to lack of funds. For the rest of the countries, the situation is intermediate, with no private institutes yet, but with a need to survive through the sale of products or services. In several countries, concern was expressed over the dwindling stock of seed laboratory materials and supplies, and the lack of resources to upgrade long-term cold storage chambers or the existing technology.

So far, the public sector has supported the private sector mainly in seed production, marketing and trade activities, and, to a lesser extent, in the development of new varieties. The involvement of the private sector is essential for injecting fresh resources.

The primary agricultural research activities in most countries of the region involve variety development, testing throughout the country, release and registration, variety maintenance and breeder seed production. Plant breeding, the source of modern varieties, is the backbone of the formal seed sector. It used to be a government undertaking in all countries of the region, but now, with privatization of the agricultural sector, first multiplication and then plant breeding increasingly have been undertaken by private or privatized enterprises. Before the transition, the demand for seed of improved varieties was met by the state through its breeding institutions. As a result, there was no real need for PBR considerations. Now that the private seed sector has become involved in plant breeding, there has been a growing demand for the introduction of PBR. As a result, several countries have introduced appropriate legislation or are in the process of doing so. For all other countries, the matter is under active consideration.

The amount of hybrid seed and of vegetative propagating material imported by some countries (primarily for horticulture) suggests that their national research has not been as advanced and competitive as that of trading partners. The trend is already influencing the direction of future research programmes, focusing attention on the need to obtain practical and economically useful results.

Seed improvement

Areas of seed improvement generally include: seed physiology, seed production, seed processing, seed quality control, seed health, seed storage and packing and some aspects of biotechnology. Following research, there is a need to circulate findings to the research sector and to communicate useful results to the education, agricultural extension and information sectors.

Seed improvement programmes increasingly use biotechnology applications. With a reasonable investment in laboratory facilities, biotechnology enables expansion of research and delivers faster results with a higher degree of precision. Biotechnology techniques are applied for virus and disease elimination, enhancing or modifying nutrient components, the conservation of germplasm, the development of biological pesticides, etc. There seems to be no substantial difficulties in terms of training technical and support staff, and educational and training programmes are being adapted to meet these needs in many countries.

Concern has been expressed that seed research financed by the state, including the use of biotechnology, is often remote from immediate application. As a result, findings from seed research are not bringing any income to the research sector. This is an important point to be considered in an overall strategy for the seed sector, as there must be programmes that reconcile the need for fundamental research (with long-term benefits) and applied research (with short- and medium-term benefits). Certainly, research and training in business-like management of resources becomes indispensable if research institutions are to become partly or entirely self-financing. Research on genetically modified organism (GMO) applications exists in some countries, including Hungary, but only for studies related to food commodities.

For the agricultural sector in general, and plant breeding in particular, the promulgation of legislation recognizing intellectual property rights (e.g. PBR) is indispensable for further financing of research.

For the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) to be efficient would require funding for research, with full participation of all research institutes, agricultural universities, private sector firms, NGOs and farmers’ associations of the country. It would also require the development of strategies and programmes, with the assignment of specific tasks and roles.

International cooperation in the field of research already exists, but it is often restricted to a few countries (e.g. to a few universities in western Europe and North America, and to some traditional trading partners). This should be expanded to more countries of the region, particularly to those with common agroclimatic characteristics or constraints.

Most biotechnological research carried out at universities and through research centres are usually at a national scale. Interaction and regional cooperation between institutions and private industry dealing with biotechnologies could maximize resources and reduce costs. Furthermore, institutions already applying plant biotechnologies need to be involved in formulating national research policies and programmes.

Cooperation could also be further developed with some of the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs), such as the International Centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) for wheat and maize; the International Potato Centre (CIP) for potato; and the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) for wheat, chickpea and lentil. However, the major problem confronting most IARCs has been declining and unstable funding levels. Growing uncertainty regarding the stability of donor funding was highlighted at the World Food Summit, and is recognized as one of the major constraints to future food security throughout the world. In this regard, national and regional political and financial commitments to investment in agricultural research have been recommended (FAO, 1996).

3.4 The use of seed of improved varieties in the region

Reports from most countries mention a large use of improved seed for a long list of crops and cultivars. In many cases, the percentage reaches 100%. Even though this percentage appears doubtful, it confirms that farmers prefer to use (and do use) certified seed when they can. It is part of their normal custom.

To promote the use of improved seed, some countries of the region, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, provide subsidies to farmers to buy certified seed. Due to some cases of trade malpractice, some farmers have been able to buy breeder seed or certified seed labelled as grain.

It has often been said that due to the economic status of resource-poor farmers in the region, the cost of seed of improved varieties discourages their use. The statement is not entirely correct because the price differential between grain and improved seed is usually low in this region. However, the main reason for low use of improved varieties in this region is because improved varieties often require more agricultural inputs (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides), irrigation water and handling than farmers can afford.

Research for developing improved varieties requiring less inputs would certainly be one means to improve food production and food security. A needs assessment of limited-resource farmers is necessary before new varieties are developed and introduced. Such a study could provide information on the needs and resources of the farmer and the climatic and edaphic conditions of a particular target area. The survey could also guide policy-makers in their decisions, so as to favour the on-farm production and utilization of improved varieties by farmers.

3.5 Seed production and supply systems

Seed production in the formal seed supply systems of the region does not differ significantly from country to country. In general, seed production requires a sequential process, which is vertically organized. It starts with Pre-basic seed, issued from Breeder seed supplied by a national or international research system. The Pre-basic seed is increased to Basic seed, from which several generations of Certified seed is produced. In some cases, uncertified, so-called “commercial” or “improved” seed, is produced and sold to farmers.

Throughout the region, the nomenclature of seed generations is fairly similar. The example below from Poland is typical of the general system in use. In Poland, for cereals and fibre plants, Pre-basic seed comprises Super elite and Elite; for fodder plants and small-seed legumes, it comprises Super elite and Breeding elite; for fodder grasses and oil plants, it is just Breeding elite. Basic seed is generally named “Original” throughout the region. Certified seed has two levels, called Certificate I and II. However, oil plants have only Certificate I, and beet hybrids have just the hybrid denomination.

There are regulations and procedures to be followed from one multiplication cycle to the next, and technical competence of the seed industry staff is fundamental throughout the production cycle. Seed producers are required to have a good knowledge of the crop and its phenotypic and genotypic traits.

Seed produced by the formal seed sector is required to go through several testing procedures in order to ensure that quality is maintained over time. Seed legislation stipulates quality standards for each crop. The implementation of testing, field inspection and quality control procedures gives credibility to the product marketed. Control is extended to processing plants and storage structures.

Improved seed is required to go through a series of seed handling processes before it reaches the growers. These processes, which include seed processing, distribution, and marketing, require a certain level of seed standards. Throughout the region, seed processing facilities are usually adequate and decentralized. There have been cases of malfunctioning of processing plants, of contamination from different-source seeds, and a breakdown in the seed supply system due to transport problems. The last-named becomes serious in case of shortages or prohibitive prices of fuel. Adequate management is needed to successfully operate processing plants, and training of technicians is crucial across the region if the seed produced by the formal sector is to reach the expected standards.

Another vital aspect of the seed industry is the function of conditioning and storage, which must be adequate to preserve the physical characteristics of the seed specified by regulatory standards. For storing certified and lower grade seed, less rigid principles need to be followed. Seed should be naturally or artificially dried to the moisture content recommended for each variety, and stored in ventilated, low-humidity facilities. These parameters, if met properly, are adequate for short-term storage. There are also locations that are perfect for storage due to optimal climatic conditions; however, if the distance between the storage area and the fields is considerable, the high transportation costs may suggest storage in less perfect areas or facilities. Due to the general reduction in agricultural production and the import of seed and vegetative propagated material since the early 1990s, there has been overcapacity in the seed processing and storage plants.

The main problems confronted by seed distribution systems are related to storage, transport and handling of the seed. In many countries of the region, seed marketing is also a weak link in the seed-production chain, limiting farmers’ access to seed. At the same time, private seed industries, which have a business approach to seed production and distribution, have improved the seed marketing network in CEEC. Marketing of imported vegetable seed is a well organized operation of the private sector, for example, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

It is beneficial for countries that are striving to increase their activities in international seed trade and have not yet done so, to become effectively involved in international seed organizations, including the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the International Seed Trade Federation (FIS), and the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). Lack of cooperation with these organizations decreases opportunities for export of seeds, thereby limiting the needed private sector involvement in the seed supply sector.

3.6 Seed and emergency situations

The large number of IDPs and refugees, the estimated size of the undernourished population in some 15 countries, and the projected increase in the population in seven countries (mostly from the same group) are exerting some pressure on the agriculture sector to improve and provide additional food. One of the answers is through the increased use of improved seed varieties.

There have been situations where the supply of seed was interrupted, such as during large-scale civil disturbance and war. In recent years, some countries in the region have undergone food shortages brought about by weather conditions, as well as complex internal strife and war, forcing the governments to use their foreign exchange resources to purchase food. Such situations place additional strains on economies and can cause tremendous economic setbacks. This situation has received the attention of several governments, the donor community, and international agencies (e.g. WFP).

Seed is one of the primary needs of farmers displaced because of war and natural calamities. Formerly, most affected countries received seed aid based mainly on humanitarian grounds, often with little consideration of the seed variety and its quality aspects. While such assistance has benefited some countries in the short term, especially in easing food shortages, the poor performance of untested seed material, and severe genetic contamination or complete displacement of local landraces and farmers’ varieties, can cause disruption of the informal seed sector and damage the traditional production systems of a country.

Now, NGOs and other aid agencies pay close attention when purchasing food grain from neighbouring countries and distributing the grain to farmers. Failure to do so may introduce new problems of pests, diseases and weeds and cause genetic contamination and displacement of traditional varieties. Since some farmers in the region save a portion of their harvest as seed for the following year, this problem may continue long after the emergency and jeopardize future national agricultural development and food security. Clearly, coordination is needed between emergency relief and long-term development assistance programmes to avoid problems such as introduction of inappropriate crop varieties and pests.

National, regional and global strategies are essential to cope with emergency situations. If an area in a country is affected, the rest of the country can supply the required seed, provided that national seed programmes are well established. However, if the whole country is affected, the crop varieties can be supplied through other countries in the region or through regional IARCs and international development agencies such as FAO, WFP and UNDP, and NGOs. Such assistance can help the country resume its seed production without serious threat to the production programme.

When seed programme initiatives are implemented in harsh environments, it may be difficult to reach target population if unexpected calamities occur. Adequate safeguard measures often cannot be made in time to protect the seed and planting material. In order to avoid these risks, some remedial measures should be taken:

(i) areas with some assurance of irrigation or adequate rainfall should be selected and farmers from such areas trained to produce seed;

(ii) the quest for short-season and drought-resistant varieties should be the focus of plant breeders, using the genetic material from already existing landraces and other appropriate sources of (disease and pest resistant) germplasm;

(iii) as has been done in some Asian countries, farmers should be kept informed through radio and other mass communication systems giving early warning of sudden weather fluctuations. Mass media can also promulgate advice on crop management;

(iv) with investments and support from rural development organizations, every possible water source should be developed appropriately in a sustainable manner;

(v) farmer groups should receive training on a regular basis, to assure the sustainable on-farm production of high quality seeds; and

(vi) local banks and other lending organizations should be approached to provide credit as an incentive to farmer groups interested in on-farm seed production.

In most emergency interventions of the past, responses were ad hoc and voluntary. There was no standing capacity to respond appropriately to such disasters; no clear description of responsibilities, and no coordinating mechanism to bring the various agencies and organization together for planning and implementation of emergency seed supply during and following disasters. This increased the risk of supplying inappropriate seed and planting materials and jeopardized the sustainability of future agricultural systems.

In response to these difficulties, the Fourth International Conference on Plant genetic Resources, held in Leipzig, gave FAO the mandate to coordinate programmes for rapid acquisition and multiplication, restoration and provision of seed to countries in need. This work is to be done in collaboration with WFP, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-ordinator (UNDRO), the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), NARS, IARCs, regional PGR networks, governments of the countries affected, donor countries and NGOs.

To become food self-sufficient, farmers should have on-going access to quality seed in normal and crisis situations. Viable seed supply systems to multiply and distribute the seeds or planting materials that have been developed or preserved are critical for the success of food security programmes in the region. Therefore, seed security policies and programmes are needed in the region in order to assure a ready seed supply in the quantity and quality needed of acceptable and suitable varieties, and that are affordable to farmers. In one country of the region, news circulated that hoarding of grain by farmers in 1999 amounted to 5 million tonnes.

3.7 Informal seed supply systems

Informal seed supply systems should not be confused with “black market” situations that exist in several countries of the region and affect both the formal and the informal systems. The informal seed supply system consists of farmer-managed seed production activities and is based on indigenous knowledge and local diffusion mechanisms. It includes methods such as retaining seed on-farm from previous harvests to plant the following season, and farmer-to-farmer seed exchange networks (Cromwell et al., 1992). There has been little or no emphasis on the informal seed supply sector and little is known about its operation in the region. As a result, documentation with regard to the informal seed sector is scarce.

At the time of centrally planned economies, the only seed supplier was the state, with its specialized institutions, and there was hardly any room for an informal seed sector to develop. However, it is conceivable that in countries like Poland, that always had a large number of small private farms, there was an informal seed system limited to the retention of good seed, processing and exchange within the same farmer community. A true breeding activity aiming at the development of improved seed varieties, and further activities like large-scale marketing, did not take place.

With the transition, the state ceased to be a supplier of low-price certified seed and of other agricultural inputs. With land privatization, the number of small farms increased considerably, so small-scale farmers found themselves with limited financial means and with the need to economize on the purchase of seed and other inputs. Seed started to be replaced after a longer period, there were fewer purchases of certified or commercial seed, and, in extreme situations, farmers abandoned the formal seed market. In some countries, the quantity of certified seed sold dropped by almost half.

It would be useful to analyse the situation in more detail in order to reflect these developments in the comprehensive assessment of the seed sector of the region. The experience from other regions suggests that where an informal seed supply sector is not negligible, it should be included in the policy and programmes for increasing the use of good quality seed.

An effective on-farm seed production system would require that:

(i) surveys be conducted to identify the biological, social, and economic factors of the varieties important to farmers;

(ii) breeders collaborate closely with farmers on such seed production programmes;

(iii) local germplasm be collected for long-term storage in genebanks for future multiplication and use in production; and

(iv) seed legislation take into account the low level of technology and minimum quality control procedures that are practised at the farmer-level. Assistance by FAO to governments in the region may be needed for the development of legislation.

In an informal seed supply system, seed distribution operates mainly, but not exclusively, between households within communities. However, lines of supply can be extended over a relatively wide geographical area. Under this type of seed distribution scheme, a wide variety of exchange mechanisms are commonly used to transfer seed between individuals and households, including cash sales, barter and transfers based on social obligations. The quantities of seed exchanged in the informal seed supply systems are often very small compared to amounts traded in the formal sector.

3.8 Linkages in regional seed supply systems

Research, extension, input supply services, distribution and marketing are some of the major component of an effective seed supply system. The neglect of any one component in the seed development chain affects the entire seed supply system. Furthermore, changes in policies affecting one component may have adverse effects on the performance of others and jeopardize the development of an emerging seed supply system. Some examples of what may result when linkages are not adequate are:

(i) new varieties may be developed by agricultural research institutions, but do not have the attributes required by farmers;

(ii) distribution channels for improved seed may have suitable varieties available but fail to reach small-scale farmers in a timely manner, at an affordable price, or at accessible locations;

(iii) distribution channels for complementary inputs may be ineffective; and

(iv) extension services or agricultural credit institutions may fail to provide the necessary support to farmers.

Any of the above factors could limit adoption of improved cultivars, thus affecting the development of a seed supply sector. Linkages in seed supply systems must be considered when defining appropriate seed strategies a country and the socio-economic circumstances of its farmers. In addition, it is important to be aware of potential negative repercussions to the seed supply sector if changes in other policies affect services offered to farmers.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page