Farmer choice emphasized at FAO Seed Systems conference

On 4-5 November, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) organized The Global Conference on Green Development of Seed Industries. The online forum  brought together private and public sector opinion leaders and industry stakeholders to discuss “how to make quality seeds of preferred productive, nutritious and resilient crop varieties available to farmers.” 
The conference’s first plenary session commenced with welcome remarks from Xia Jingyuan Xia (Director, FAO Plant Production and Protection Division) and Opening Remarks from Qu Dongyu (FAO Director-General). 
Plenary Session opening:  Jingyuan Xia and Dongyu Qu
This was followed by keynote speeches from representatives of seed industry and farmers groups, including from Michael Keller (Secretary General, International Seed Federation),. Speaking on behalf of the global private seed sector, Keller called for collaboration between the private and public sectors towards sustainable agriculture based on seed resilience and enabling seed choice for farmers.
“I am here to make a call for unified effort towards seed resilience to ensure the adaptability and capacity to contribute to food and nutrition security by making accessible, diverse, locally adapted, improved, high quality varieties to all farmers taking into account environmental, health and socio-economic aspects,” Michael Keller said. 
He went on to call upon governments to join, implement and put in place the relevant systems and well-defined international standards, agreements and guidelines established by various intergovernmental organizations on seed quality, varietal identity, certification and seed health. (ISF, November 2021) [Link]
The conference proceeded with sessions facilitating discussions under four main themes: 1. Advanced technologies; 2. Conservation of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture; 3. Crop varietal development and adoption and 4. Seed Systems, each with two parallel running sessions as follows:
Session 1.1 Modern plant breeding technologies
Session 1.2 Emerging biotechnologies and informatics technologies 
Session 2.1 The global conservation system
Session 2.2 Access and benefit-sharing
Session 3.1 Accelerating genetic gains in crops
Session 3.2 Facilitated adoption of improved varieties by small-scale farmers
Session 4.1 System innovations in the seed value chain
Session 4.2: Seed enterprise development and international trade

Assuring Sustainable Seed Systems

The sessions facilitated comprehensive dialogue and discussions on all relevant aspects of transforming seed systems, wrapping up with a final session that brought everything into perspective, honing in on the most active players in seed systems -- farmers, seed producers and traders.  
Co-Chaired by Dr. Keshavulu Kunusoth (Director, Telangana State Seed & Organic Certification Authority, India and Vice President, International Seed Testing Association) and Shaun Ferris (Senior Technical Advisor, Agriculture/Livelihoods and Markets, Catholic Relief Services) , the session featured presentations with strong emphasis on and representation from Africa and Asia,  which looked into the roles of government and the private sector in seed business development, markets, and regional harmonization efforts in seed certification and phytosanitary measures. (See end info for link to full conference agenda and recordings.)
Top: Dr. Keshavulu Kunusoth: Bottom, from left, going clockwise, Dr. Rose Souza Richards (ISF Seed Health Manager), Shaun Ferris and Justin Rakotoarisaona (Secretary General, African Seed Trade Association. 
The session finished with an engaging panel discussion, moderated by Niels Louwaars (Managing Director, Plantum, Netherlands), and featuring Francois Burgaud (Senior Advisor to the Presidency, French Interprofessional Organisation for Seeds and Plants, France); Tsungai Bwerazuva (Seed Expert, Champion Farmer Seeds Cooperative Company, Zimbabwe), Dr. Kanokwan Chodchoey (Executive Director,  the Asia Pacific Seed Alliance) and Kristiina Digryte (Councillor for Agriculture and Fisheries, Permanent Representation of Estonia to the European Union). 
From top left, going clockwise: Niels Louwaars,  Kristiina Digryte, Francois Burgaud, Tsungai Bwerazuva and Dr. Kanokwan Chodchoey.
Francois stressed the need to prioritize farmers in seed systems. 
“As breeders, farmers need Intellectual Property Rights, as producers of seeds, they need a system of quality control, which is not expensive and does not favor big companies over small ones. And if they are users, they need to be sure that what they have in the bag is really is the variety and germination they are expecting, he said.  
Elaborating on need for IPR, Francois clarified the purpose of the seed sector is not to bring seeds -- for that is a function that has come with the harvest for thousands of years, h said, clarifying that “the purpose of the seed sector is to bring new varieties, to bring genetic progress. It means you build the seed sector on IPR as a way to encourage farmers and companies to be involved in breeding to have more varieties and more choice for the farmers.”
Also representing a European and ‘Global North’ perspective, Kristiina Digryte elaborated on the importance of quality and certification systems, noting that in her region, seed selection is not necessarily a limiting factor for farmers and breeders thanks to an extensive and harmonized seed certification and variety registration systems. 
Speaking from Africa, Tsungai Bwerazuva agreed with Francoi8s point about prioritizing farmers, adding that the approach not only needed to be farmer centric but farmer driven.  
However, she noted that in farmer managed seed systems, seed quality -- whether perceived or real -- has been an issue. 
What is needed, therefore, is assurances for farmers -- of not only seed quality, but in the ability to trade freely, and of the ability to derive benefits from breeding and IPR, she concluded. 
Providing an Asia-Pacific perspective, Dr. Kanokwan (May) stressed the importance of the seed industry’s important role to bring the good work of breeders to farmers, while balancing the rights of both breeders and farmers.
She highlighted two key priorities for the seed industry in the Asia-Pacific region, which she noted is economically diverse in terms of having a mix of least developed countries, developing countries and developed countries.
On the first priority, Plant Variety Protection (PVP), she said stakeholders are actively working together to ensure PVP laws are harmonized, and more specifically, aligned with the UPOV 1991 convention. 
The second priority is to align phytosanitary measures as part of regional and global efforts to work towards a Systems Approach, as elaborated on earlier in a presentation by ISF Seed Health Manager Dr. Rose Souza Richards.  
For these alignment efforts, Dr. Kanokwan concluded that “we need the continued support of national seed associations and the public sector as Asia-Pacific is one of the fastest growing regions in the world in terms of seed markets.” 
All sessions were recorded and can be viewed on the FAO’s website [Link]