The Last Seed Industry Frontiers?

Edição X | 06 - Nov . 2006

James Delouche - JCDelouche@aol.com

   I know it is poor style to begin an essay with an explanation of its title but I feel it is necessary. The “Last Seed Industry Frontiers” in the title refers to those diminishing areas of the world that do not yet have a substantial portion of the organization, infrastructure, and skills required to supply the improved seeds needed to advance the agricultural sector and provide for food security. In the 1950s when I begin my professional career as a seed   technologist, the seed industry frontiers were extensive and expanding rather than diminishing.                 
    Except for Western Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and one or two countries in Africa (e.g., South Africa) and South America (e.g., Argentina) the rest of the world was a seed industry frontier. The Soviet Union should probably also be included as an exception but of a very different sort. Under its centrally planned and operated economic system some state and/or collective farms were assigned the tasks of producing seeds for distribution to other farms but this system was certainly not efficient, responsive or responsible. It should also be noted that the vegetable seed segment of the seed industry was a general exception. Vegetable seed trade had moved well beyond the frontier and was   already commercialized to varying degrees in many of the countries even in the 1950s.   
               
    The Frontiers Begin to Recede               
    The seed industry frontiers reached their peak and began to recede in the 1960s. India, South Korea, Argentina, Chile and Brazil moved beyond the frontier and began to seriously address the task of constructing seed industries for their specific needs and types of agriculture. Policies relating to seed supply systems were established and/or reformed, appropriate sanctioning and regulatory legislation was enacted, government services such as foundation seed supplies, certification and seed testing were established, and, very, very cautiously, the private sector was permitted to participate.                
    Many additional countries, e.g., Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Egypt and others in North Africa, Kenya, Turkey, Colombia, Costa Rica and others in South America moved to the seed industry frontier and beyond in the late 1960s and 1970s with the stimulus of the “green revolution” wheat and rice varieties and the rapid increase in the adoption of hybrids varieties of maize, sorghum and millet. Although developments were often slow and sporadic and frequently unbalanced, most of the countries with a substantial agricultural market economy had established relatively resourceful, and reasonably well functioning seed industries for the major food and commercial crops by the 1990s with substantial   private sector participation.                
    The major exceptions are countries in West and Sub- Saharan Africa and some in East Africa. These exceptions were joined by many of the newly independent countries (NIS) from the dissolution of the USSR in the 1990s. With independence, the NIS were cut-off from supplies of seeds (and varieties) for important food grains they did not produce under the central plan, production inputs, as well as from markets for the agricultural products they did produce. My feeling is that these two exceptions constitute the last frontiers for seed industry development, but I may have overlooked others which is why there is a question mark at the end of the title.   
               
    In most but not all of the countries mentioned, Asia, South America, and North Africa the seed industry is market oriented and the private sector is heavily involved.”     
              
    I recognize that there is much developmental work left to be done on the seed industries in many countries and a continuing need for fine tuning and adaptations of the seed industries in North American and Western European countries, Australia and others with highly commercialized, largely privatized seed industries. The latest issue of SEED News lists some of the impediments to further development of seed industries: the continued and widespread use of farm saved seed of self pollinated crops; piracy of protected and patented varieties; over-caution and delays in acceptance of GM varieties; problems in the collection of royalties and technological fees. The lack of productive, adapted varieties for many of the secondary crops, and burdensome phytosanitary, variety registration and testing regulations and procedures can be added to the list. But, these impediments are mostly resolvable through shifts in research priorities, administrative and policy decisions. 
                 
    Benchmarks of Progress               
    I began to think about the subject of this essay several weeks ago while reading some of the seed trade magazines, including SEED News, and news articles about renewed efforts to do something about the African agricultural sector and economy and the food security problems in the NIS. One benchmark of progress in any industry is the organization of trade associations. Many national and regional seed trade associations have been organized during the last 25 years in Asia, South America, and North Africa and some are now flourishing. They were often started by taking small steps such as the informal seed clubs organized in Thailand and Indonesia in the 1970s. The national seed associations formed in India, Pakistan, Brazil, Argentina, China and other countries have become powerful advocates for modernization and progress in agriculture. Regional associations were then formed: the Asia and Pacific Seed Association, the Latin American Federation of Seed Associations and very recently a Seed Association of the Americas.              
    Then there is the global International Seed Federation (FIS) which has performed both umbrella and leadership roles for national and regional seed associations for many years. An African Seed Association was organized during the 1990s but it has not flourished as expected and needed. Another benchmark of progress in the development of a seed industry is the extent of involvement of the private sector and market forces in its operations. In most but not all of the countries mentioned above in Asia, South America, and North Africa the seed industry is market oriented and the private sector is heavily involved.      
            
    Appropriate Models              
    North American and Western European countries as well as the more progressive ones in Asia and South America have served and continue to serve as models for those that are   progressing more slowly. Sometimes the models selected have been appropriate, but in far too   many cases they have not been appropriate. The early seed villages model in some of the   Indian states was not appropriate for other states and as it turned out not even appropriate for the state in which it originated. The concentration of seed activities model was very successful in several states in India but failed completely when exported to Indonesia and Nepal.               The rigorous, tightly regulated seed industry model from Northern Europe has turned out to be inappropriate for many Asian and South American countries while the very liberal U. S. model has been equally inappropriate for many developing countries. This brings us to main points of this essay which can be framed in two questions. First, can the smaller, resource   poor and technology deficient countries in Africa and the now independent former Soviet republics (NIS) just recently released from the stifling bonds of a centrally planned economic system be moved beyond the frontiers of seed industry development into the progressive agricultural arena? Second, if the transitions are possible, are their appropriate models for these obviously difficult tasks?                
    I believe that the NIS with a reasonably substantial crop agriculture and resource base can be moved into the stream of agricultural modernization and productivity. Armenian farmers can and are re-learning how to grow wheat instead of winter vegetables for Moscow and Leningrad; Uzbeck farmers can re-relearn how to produce food crops instead of cotton and so on. These transitions will take time but there are relatively good models in the larger NIS, Turkey and Eastern Europe. Moving the smaller, resource poor African countries beyond the seed industry frontiers will be a much more difficult task.                
    There has been many trials but mostly errors over many years at considerable cost The small West African and Sub-Saharan countries are different. Food crop agriculture is much different than in Asian countries and most of those in South America. There are no good models. For example, there are no work animals, soil resources are poor, irrigation and water management is essentially non-existent, many of the kinds of crops introduced and crop varieties developed have not been appropriate for the small, largely subsistence farmers, many of the important crops are vegetatively propagated and maintained, and the markets for any surplus production are small, local and easily saturated.                
    The recurring droughts and civil strife add enormously to the difficulties and greatly magnify the deficiencies. Yet, I am optimistic that in time and with patience the renewed efforts and investments in improving food production and security in Africa can produce substantial advances in food supply and the economic status of the rural poor. These limited goals, however, will not be achieved with the short term attention, unrealistic expectations and inappropriate models that have characterized too many of the development efforts in the past. The model for development of adequate seed supply systems for these countries will have to be fashioned from good and bad experiences in the region.   

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