Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Regional cooperation in the seed sector of the CEEC, CIS and other Countries in Transition - Zoltán Bedo

Zoltán BEDO


Agricultural Research Institute
of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
2462 Martonvasar Pf. 19

Tel: INT+36+ 22 569 500
Fax: INT+36+ 22 460 213
E-mail: [email protected]


Agricultural cooperation has always played an important role in the history of the region. Seed had a central place in this cooperation, and the plant varieties tested and later cultivated in various parts of the region had broad adaptability. A good example of this is the most famous and most successful wheat cultivar of the twentieth century, Bezostaya 1, which was the most widespread wheat variety in Eastern Europe and was used in the breeding of dozens of other varieties. Just as the progeny of local varieties originating from the Bánát region, on the borders of Yugoslavia and Hungary, and also grown in Ukraine, were to be found in the pedigree of Bezostaya 1, which was selected in Krasnodar, in Russia, so the progeny of local varieties from the western part of Ukraine, from the province previously known as Galicia, could be found in the pedigree of Central European wheat varieties. Reciprocal reliance thus has a long history, reflecting unity in the face of unfavourable ecological conditions and natural catastrophes.

Due to the economic system during the socialist period - characterized by goods in short supply - prior to the change of regime, considerable efforts were made to achieve cooperation in the seed sector. In the majority of COMECON countries, it was hoped that cooperation in research, seed production and supply, and in the centralized seed trade, would reduce the social tension caused by deficient food production. The large-scale cooperatives and state farms formed in most countries in the region set up seed processing plants. In most places the spread of the state-sponsored formal seed sector led to the demise of the informal seed sector based on local traditions. Due to the lack of a real market economy, the cooperation generally took the form of bartering. Transactions between the various countries or regions involved the exchange of seed for industrial products or raw materials, which did nothing to promote high quality production or the development of a direct interest in improving contacts. The basic characteristics of this period were:

Despite the limitations of the socialist economy, a relatively well-developed seed industry developed in some countries in the region, especially in those which traded seed with western countries. Many western seed companies commissioned farms in the region to produce seed for them, thus exploiting favourable agro-ecological conditions, the short, cheap transportation distances and the low labour cost. In some countries, restricted economic reforms allowed multinational seed companies to introduce their own plant varieties, and western manufacturers to import complete seed plants, etc. Some parts of the seed sector thus underwent development from the early 1970s due to the introduction of internationally compatible standards. Such areas included:

The introduction of internationally recognized standards was not carried out at regional level, so the previously existing differences in the level of development continued to grow, both between the region as a whole and member countries with a high standard of agriculture, and between various countries within the region. These latter differences made it extremely difficult for the countries to cooperate on an equal basis to the mutual advantage of both parties. In the less developed parts of the region, short-term aims ruled in seed policy due to the need for food security, while the internationally compatible system of seed security factors required for sustainable development was neglected. At the same time, some countries attempted to carry out internal reforms, despite the lack of a real market-oriented economy, and thus to become part of the international cooperation.

As a consequence of the political and economic changes that began in the region in 1990, cooperation in agriculture, including the seed sector, was reduced to a minimum or ceased to exist altogether. This can be attributed in part to:

In most countries in the region, the centralized state seed trading and distributing companies were liquidated, but the new, local private companies were not strong enough to replace them. Due to the poorly developed nature of the market economy, in many places foreign seed companies felt the lack of a market-oriented environment in many ways.

In the field of research, the state breeding institutes found themselves in financial difficulties, but breeding research by private companies is still in an embryonic state in many countries. The sharp reduction in the state financing of genebanks, due to high inflation and a drop in overall R&D funding, represents an even greater danger. There has been a steep decline in the production of high quality certified seed due to the lack of customer buying power. As a reaction against the previous regime, many countries gave preference to cooperation outside the region, and considered cooperation with developed countries to preclude regional cooperation.


Compared to the few last years of the socialist-economy era, the total volume of agricultural production has decreased in almost all the countries in the region. As a consequence, food security problems still exist: in some countries the potential danger has even increased. The lack of cooperation between the countries in the region contributes to an increase in instability. It would be impossible to reconstruct this cooperation on the old pattern, but so far the conditions required for the elaboration and application of new types of cooperation do not exist. The anomalies in the seed sector arise from the fact that:

The basis of regional seed security would be to develop similar seed policy strategies in all the countries in the region in fields guaranteeing security and partnership in international cooperation. This means that every country interested in regional cooperation should implement a national seed policy as soon as possible, first in the form of legislation, and then in the practical application of these laws. Cooperation is inconceivable without the passing and application of laws that guarantee

In a regional seed security system, the indirect components are at least as important as the direct components. The free movement and accumulation of national and international capital in the private sector and the stimulation of investments will require clear laws, which will have a favourable influence on the whole of the economy. The dominance of state interest in seed production, processing and trade must gradually be diminished and the conditions required for the development and functioning of the private sphere must be fulfilled. At the same time, it would enhance the work of the seed sector if there were better guarantees for state responsibilities.


It would be to the advantage of all the stakeholders in the seed sector if prolonged seed security could be guaranteed by the termination of the transitional period in the Eastern European region. A long-term programme of successful cooperation is only possible under relatively stable conditions, where the actors and their roles are known at the various levels. Different forms of cooperation will combine for an overall, multilevel system.

The regional stakeholders include:

National stakeholders include:

Local stakeholders include:

The whole system will function optimally if the coordination achieved at national and regional level has a positive effect on local stakeholders. During the socialist period, when agriculture was carried out on large farms, the connection between national and local stakeholders was close due to direct state control and the lack of a market-oriented economy. The role of large state purchasing companies was decisive, and these also gave expression to state intentions. This system greatly restricted even the existence of an informal seed sector. The large-scale farm management and plant protection, and the single purchasing channel also prevented the cultivation of traditional varieties in many places.


The majority of the private farms established after the change of regime are reliant on the formal seed sector. Some of these farmers have sufficient experience and professional knowledge, as they were previously employed in agriculture on cooperative or state farms. At the same time, many people who acquired land in the course of re-privatization or in the form of compensation are deficient in professional knowledge and would like to return to older production methods and to the informal seed system. At the local level, governmental agents, farmers’ associations and NGOs are all endeavouring to promote their integration into production.

Nevertheless, both types of farmers suffer from:

In many cases, national stakeholders and local farmers are not equal partners. In this respect, very little has changed compared to the period before the change of regime. The farmers are disadvantaged by their defencelessness, by funding and price instability, and by their difficulty experienced in obtaining credit. Nevertheless, governments are making considerable efforts to protect the interests of smallholders and to improve their financial situation. In Hungary, for example, the agricultural administration subsidizes sales of chemically treated certified seed to small farmers, has set up a village extension service network, and not only offers land-based subsidies to small farmers, but also gives them preference in other forms of subsidization.

The revival of the informal seed sector is not in the interests of the majority of stakeholders in countries where the production of a satisfactory quantity of high quality seed is ensured by the formal seed sector. The situation is quite different in countries where seed security is inadequate, since the two sectors could complement each other. The import by the formal seed sector of varieties with uncertain adaptability and performance implies a number of potential dangers, so in many cases the production of seed of adapted local varieties in the informal seed sector would appear to be a better solution.

During the transitional period following the change of regime, the role of the formal seed sector declined in most countries in the region. The informal seed sector developed to the greatest extent in the production of seed from self-pollinating plants, though unfortunately, in some places, there have been cases of cultivating the F2 generation of hybrid plants, which is a typical example of the misinterpretation of the role of the informal seed sector. This phenomenon will disappear when the situation in agriculture is normalized and when international companies become more active in the production of seed from open-pollinated hybrid plants.

In many places, instead of a strengthening of the informal seed sector, the seed black market, which already existed during the socialist period, can be observed to be flourishing, which will have a detrimental effect on seed security in the region.

With respect to self-pollinating crops, the informal seed sector could make a positive contribution to agricultural production in many parts of the region, since:

The informal seed sector could also play a role in areas from which the competitive sector withdraws due to the introduction of ecological farming in order to preserve ecological balance. The crop diversity that can be ensured by the informal seed sector forms an integral part of sustainable ecological farming. The implementation of this system is likely to occur soonest in the more developed countries of the region, where there is a high level of food and seed security.


There are substantial differences both between the various countries in the region and within the countries themselves as regards the state of development of agriculture and the seed sector. This must not be a barrier to regional cooperation, but should rather be a source of motivation. At the same time, efficient regional cooperation will be impossible without national seed policies conforming to international standards.

The primary aim in developing national seed policies is not participation in international cooperation, but:

Nevertheless, international cooperation can only be based on reliability and a fundamental level of compatibility. A soundly-based seed policy will lead to improvements in the results achieved in agriculture and provide a better basis for international cooperation, which in turn will have a beneficial influence on agricultural production. The major components of a national seed policy can be summarized as follows:

5.1 Market-oriented seed policy

The most important criterion for a market-oriented seed sector is to make privatization of the seed sector as wide-ranging as possible. In most countries in the region, the privatization process was initiated after the change of regime. In many places the state seed trading companies were liquidated that previously were responsible for centralized seed distribution. Although the state farms and cooperatives that had carried out most of the seed production and processing underwent a change of ownership, it cannot be said that true privatization has taken place. The agricultural administration is unwilling to withdraw from the seed sector, or, at most, only very gradually, for fear of endangering seed security.

In most countries, foreign seed companies have now come on the scene, or, where they were already active, have set up their own trading subsidiaries. In some places, they have purchased seed processing plants or even breeding companies, or have established testing stations. They are concerned mostly with seed production and trading of hybrid and horticultural plants, where the most rapid returns on investments can be expected. Their sphere of action is broadly associated with:

5.2 Plant germplasm preservation and variety improvement research

Germplasm preservation research was well developed in the region prior to the change of regime. The collection, maintenance and processing of genebank reserves was the exclusive responsibility of the state, as was the breeding of new varieties. In the majority of East European countries, research networks were set up for the breeding of almost all the plant species involved in crop production. Following the change of regime, conditions changed radically. Unfortunately there was a steep drop in state funding available for the maintenance of plant genebanks and for breeding research. East European researchers were unable to take advantage either of the development trends proffered by computerization or of molecular techniques for germplasm research. Not only is it difficult for the principle of selectivity to prevail in breeding, but the state-funded breeding of all the economically important crops has become anachronistic throughout the region due to the increasing spread of plant varieties developed by private international companies. A re-think of state policies is required, due to:

In this last field, the role of the state in genebank research must definitely be retained. In the case of crops where seed production can provide sufficient profit for the financing of breeding, the latter should gradually be privatized. This will obviously be true primarily of hybrid plants. The state is unlikely to withdraw completely from plant breeding research in the region for some time to come. However, with an improvement in international cooperation, and with the spread of molecular breeding techniques and the practical appearance of genetically modified plant varieties, its function and responsibilities will gradually change compared with earlier periods.

5.3 Plant variety evaluation, registration and plant variety protection rights

In most countries in the region, the registration of plant varieties played a useful role in domestic agricultural production and to the selection of varieties giving the best performance. In more and more places, registration includes the estimation of economic value and the distinctness, uniformity and stability (DUS) tests required by UPOV. The introduction of UPOV regulations, however, has not been accompanied in all countries by the practical implementation of Plant Variety Protection (PVP) rights. In many places, the collection of royalties is completely impossible, or can only be attained with great difficulty and low efficiency. The black market has a dominant place in seed sales. It can be observed that, in countries where the PVP system functions well, foreign varieties have spread to a greater extent, more resources are available for domestic breeding, and agricultural production had reached a higher level of efficiency even before the change of regime.

5.4 Seed testing and certification

In the course of seed testing, the application of the system established by the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA) is essential if compatibility with the international system is to be achieved. The uniform interpretation and execution of seed testing methods will require the maintenance of an efficient network, which in most countries will remain a state responsibility. This system is basically designed to satisfy the requirements of the formal seed sector and does not take into consideration the informal seed sector still remaining or now reviving in some districts. In order to prevent the spread of seed of dubious quality, it would be advisable to provide within the framework of the extension system a service for the quality control of seed from the informal seed sector, based on the requirements of the farm community.

5.5 Plant protection and quarantine measures

In order to safeguard food safety, it is essential for every country to maintain a national network for plant protection and quarantine measures. The importance of this system has increased during the transitional period, since the formation of new farm communities has led to the use of a greater quantity of seed of uncertain quality. The significance of the quarantine service is even greater in emergency situations, when epidemics spread with no respect for frontiers, Events such as natural catastrophes may result in the movement of substantial seed lots across national borders, involving new potential dangers.

5.6 Seed production, storage and marketing policy

The seed production system was established in all the countries in the region during the years of socialist management, and exhibits a fundamental similarity throughout the region. The extent to which high quality seed was used during the transitional period differs, however, from country to country, and generally has been lower than during the last years of the socialist era. Some governments have thus taken steps to subsidize the purchase of high quality, certified, dressed seed, especially by newly established farms and smallholdings.

The fluctuations in the demand for seed, arising from the uncertainty of the farmers’ financial situations, does not promote stable seed production, the formation of reserves and steady price trends, and there is frequently a disparity between supply and demand, which has a negative effect on agricultural production. With the liquidation of the state seed distribution centres, most trading positions in the formal seed sector have been taken over by international seed companies, especially for seed of F1 hybrid cultivars. Domestic trading companies struggling with a lack of capital are incapable of either laying by reserves or providing farmers with seed on credit or in the form of other favourable marketing arrangements.

If seed sales are to be regulated, it is essential that an adequate control system be established, including a register of seed merchants, and the linking of marketing rights with compulsory membership of a seed trading organization or seed product council. In no country should companies lacking the necessary technical knowledge be allowed to participate in seed production, processing and sales. This necessary knowledge covers both intellectual, material and financial parameters. The register should be kept by the seed traders’ organization or by a Seed Council, preferably the latter, since it would represent not only traders, but also growers and breeders, so all the actors in the seed sector are to be found in a single organization. Once set up, this database will provide the basis for improved control and data registration. Such organizations are non-governmental, but work in partnership with the agricultural administration. Among other things, they make recommendations to the government on prices and control systems. The better the partnership between them, the greater the level of regulation and predictability that can be achieved in seed production and marketing.


By putting national seed policies on a new basis, the countries in the region could achieve considerable progress towards sustainable seed supplies and towards establishing the conditions required for seed security and for long-term cooperation within the region. The cooperation will only be of a permanent nature if, instead of reverting to old forms of cooperation, each of the countries in the region sets up a market-oriented seed sector based on private ownership, and if this is used as the basis for new contacts. Naturally, even without this it is possible to establish ad hoc bilateral relationships between various countries in the region, but these will be difficult to maintain in the long term.

Stakeholders at the national level could contribute greatly to the development of regional cooperation by ensuring the existence of the necessary conditions. At the present time, however, these conditions, i.e. the full development of national seed policies, have still not been met in many countries, or are not yet at a stage where it could be said that the seed policy of the previous regime has been replaced by a more advanced system. In many places, elements of the old and new policies exist side by side. The need for a change is justified most clearly by the demands from farmers, which must be taken into consideration when elaborating the programme of regional cooperation. This in turn must be used to promote further progress during the initial period.

The establishment of new national seed policies is entirely the province of each individual nation. Nevertheless, due to the different degrees of development within the region, there are plenty of examples available to assist in the formulation of various parts of the policy, such as privatization, legislation, etc.

On the basis of the above, and with the participation of FAO, regional cooperation should be developed in the following fields in the coming period:

1. Regional coordination for accelerating the implementation of new national seed policies in the fields of:

2. Coordination strategy for partnership between private and public stakeholders in the seed sector.

3. Regional germplasm conservation strategy for plant improvement.

4. Development of a regional database for coordinating seed actions.

5. Elaboration of a future regional strategy for the informal seed sector.

6.1 Regional coordination for accelerating the implementation of new national seed policies

The transitional state of the seed sector in the region will come to an end when the privatization process is completed. With the creation of a new ownership class, it will become clear who are the national and local actors in the seed sector that will decisively influence future developments. The privatization carried out so far demonstrates that, if the process is to be stable and successful, priority should be given to:

Regional seed coordination should be based on Seed Laws, which should be harmonized across the region. The main motivation for this should be the achievement of the highest possible level of seed security by regulating the rights and obligations of the various stakeholders in the region. In the course of developing legislation, the new seed laws should also promote improvements in seed quality, provide legal guarantees of reliable seed use by farmers, and regulate the functions of the formal and informal seed sectors. The farmers’ interests will be served if no distinction is made between domestic and foreign actors, and if this is guaranteed by law.

Variety registration

When coordinating variety registration, it must be made possible to test domestic and foreign varieties under the same conditions in every country in the region, so that farmers can have access to seed of what really are the best cultivars, without discrimination. For this purpose, an end must be made of the practice of applying different experimental conditions and criteria, different registration and testing fees, and in some countries different costs of retaining the variety in the national list, for varieties of different origin. The communication of the results of DUS tests, which is already in practice in some places, should be extended to more countries, to reduce the costs of variety registration.

Coordination of seed quarantine regulations

During the changes experienced in the region, a number of states have split up into several new countries, the areas of which often make up a single ecological unit. The epidemics recorded in earlier years, the appearance of new diseases and pests, the change in farm size (the establishment of many smaller farms) and changes in production technologies all draw attention to the need for strict adherence to quarantine regulations, requiring cooperation within the region and the coordination of official measures. The seed trade would be facilitated by state subsidies for quarantine testing fees.

Coordination of seed production regulations for genetically modified plants

Genetically modified plant varieties are gaining more and more ground in agriculture throughout the world. Despite being received differently in various regions, their role is likely to increase, as proved by their appearance in the region. Transgenic plant varieties have enormous potential for the crop production of the future, so great care should be taken in regulating the production, processing, transportation and marketing of their seed.

In some countries, the complex system required to regulate the cultivation of transgenic plants and the production of their seed has already become law and is now being implemented, but this is not true of every country in the region. There are also substantial differences between the laws already passed. The large-scale cultivation of transgenic plants is likely to be retarded by the distrust and protests experienced at present, chiefly in Western Europe, but this will probably be short-lived.

A consensus must be achieved throughout the region, on which to base a uniform or near-uniform regulation system for the production, processing, transportation, marketing, field use or, if required, destruction of seed from transgenic plant varieties. For the elaboration of joint regulations, it is recommended that the existing laws should be taken as the basis for discussion in order to achieve a common platform with which future laws should comply.

6.2 Coordination strategy for partnership between private and public stakeholders in the seed sector

The transitional status of the region will only come to an end if, after the completion of privatization, the function of the public sector in R&D, in variety registration, in seed certification, and in seed production, processing and trading, is properly defined. The need for this is justified by the facts that:

It follows that the private sector must be provided with the necessary operational conditions in all the countries in the region. This will be based primarily on the new national seed policy outlined above. The introduction of this new national seed policy should not only ensure the free movement of private capital, but should also facilitate cooperation between stakeholders in the private and public sectors. This cooperation could involve:

6.3 Regional germplasm strategy for plant improvement

Despite the differences in agro-ecological potential within the region, it can generally be observed that there is a wealth of germplasm, characterized by excellent adaptability to various biotic and abiotic factors and by numerous other agronomically valuable properties of use in the breeding of modern plant varieties. Germplasm research has a long tradition, but it has been given very low priority during the transitional period.

Research on East European germplasm is not in the exclusive interests of the region itself, since the results may also profit other regions of the world. It would thus be worth setting up a joint project involving the private sector and international seed companies, not to mention international research networks such as IPGRI, CIMMYT, ICARDA, etc., in order to achieve coordinated development. A programme should be elaborated for the coordination of existing genebank collections, covering the following areas:

6.4 Development of a regional database for coordinating seed actions

This database should:

6.5 Future regional strategy for the informal seed sector

During the period since the changes of regime, the transformation of the ownership structure has led to new demands for the strengthening of the informal seed sector. It would thus appear to be worth examining:


The food security of the region was not satisfactory during the period of the socialist economy, although there were considerable variations within the region. The majority of the countries were net importers of food and agricultural products. During the transitional period, agricultural production declined year-on-year, and a system providing greater food security has still not developed in most countries in the region. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including the lack of cooperation in the region, which also has a negative effect on the seed sector.

There is now a move in the region to re-think national seed policies in the light of market-oriented economic principles and international legal norms. In the long term, harmonious relationships within the region will only be viable and mutually advantageous if the new national seed policies are all based on the same principles, including the privatization of the seed sector, laws ensuring the operation of the seed sector and guaranteeing the protection of intellectual property rights, and internationally compatible quarantine and seed testing systems.

Future cooperation must conform with the market economy if the seed safety of the farmers is to really improve. It is recommended that regional coordination should be set up for the drafting of laws playing a key role in the national seed policy, so that these will promote the development of the seed sector and international cooperation. The coordinated cooperation of regional and national actors would help to provide greater security for local actors, as would an efficient strategy of partnership between private and public stakeholders. The preservation of regional germplasm and the coordination of research in this field is an urgent task. In most countries in the region there is a need to define the future role of the informal seed sector. By setting up a regional database on the basis of national variety lists, it would be possible to decide which varieties of the strategically important plant species should be used as seed reserves in the event of natural catastrophes. The state reserves of individual governments or those of international seed companies could be designated for this purpose. The financing mechanism should be elaborated on an international scale in order to achieve maximum efficiency at the lowest possible cost.


Ángyán, J. 1998. Magyarország földhasználati zónarendszerének kidolgozása az EU-csatlakozási tárgyalások megalapozásához [Elaboration of a land utilization zone system for Hungary as the basis of EU accession negotiations]. Gödölloi Agrártudományi Egyetem Környezet- és Tájgazdálkodási Intézet kiadványa. 51 p.

Berkó, J., & Horváth, J. 1993. A hibridkukorica magyarországi elterjedésének és a kukorica vetömagipar kialakulásának története [History of the spread of hybrid maize in Hungary and the development of the maize seed industry]. Magyar Agrártudományi Egyesület kiadványa, Budapest. 206 p.

Burián, B. 1983. A vetömagtermesztés fejlödése és magyarországi története [History of the development of seed production in Hungary]. Mezogazdasági Kiadó. 248 p.

FAO. 1999. Seed policy and programmes for sub-Saharan Africa. Proc. of the Regional Technical Meeting on Seed Policy and Programmes for Sub-Saharan Africa. FAO Plant Production and Protection Paper, No.151. 232 p.

Srivastava, J., Smith, N.J.H., & Forno, D.A. 1996. Biodiversity and Agricultural Intensification. Environmentally Sustainable Development Studies and Monographs Series, No.11.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page