Innovation in Farmers' Seed Systems

Innovation is part of farming

Regardless how good a variety is, it needs to adapt to changing conditions, e.g. changing pests and diseases. Farmers therefore, mainly by selection, develop varieties, regardless whether DUS or population varieties. Researchers have shown that participatory plant breeding leads to useful varieties, because breeding objectives are set according to farmers’ needs and priorities, and the breeding process employs farmers’ skills. Farmers also are not just passive recipients of seeds. Producing seeds from farmer bred varieties is an important rural income source.

Today, farmers continue their sustainable practices to develop varieties, occasionally supported by projects. For example, under the CBDC-BUCAP program which was implemented in five rice-growing countries - Bhutan, Lao PDR, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, farmers developed dozens of rice and other locally adapted varieties and increased their incomes.

A major condition for this innovative capacity is the naturally given capacity of plants to reproduce, of which farmers make use for the benefit of society. Farmers’ rights to save, exchange and sell farmed saved seeds and propagating material is a precondition for farmers’ innovation. This right is severely challenged, by technological and regulatory means.

Hybrid seeds are crossed from two inbred lines to make use of the heterosis effect – higher yield if growing conditions allow. Hybrid seed when multiplied, however, loses the hybrid yield advantage. If farmers want to produce for the modern market, they have to continue buying seeds and other inputs. If they can’t afford such expenses, they need to be able to return to open pollinated varieties. Therefore, open pollinated varieties as alternatives to hybrids must be available to ensure food sovereignty. Regulatory frameworks and subsidies should not prioritize hybrids.

Terminator technology is a genetic use restriction technology (GURT) based on genetic modification which makes seed sterile - farm saved seeds simply don't grow. Some terminator technologies are claimed to be reversible with the help of products sold by the seed company. This technology is obviously very dangerous for food sovereignty and has been temporarily banned by the United Nations.

Contract farming: Integrating farmers in value chains is often propagated as a chance for them to access world markets. In the first place, farmers are by such contracts compelled to pay for IPR protected seeds and other inputs. Such investments, mostly on credit, may lead to indebtedness. Farmers’ rights to save, reuse, exchange and sell such seeds, are usually curtailed by means of contract.

Intellectual property rights are regulatory genetic use restrictions on reproducible plant material that further impede farmers' innovation capacity. Patents and UPOV91 based PVPs don’t allow farmers to freely adapt and develop IPR protected seeds. Moreover, such seeds often represent an economic risk: Any license fees surely increase prices for seeds or planting material, while higher incomes from their claimed improvement depend on many factors, for example price developments.

Seed marketing legislation: In the North, in particular the EU, it is common to allow selling varieties only if they fulfill certain conditions. First, it has to show sufficient germination capacity, purity (all of the same variety) and health. In addition the variety needs to be admitted to the market. The criteria include distinctness, uniformity and stability, the same criteria that count for PVP.

Non-DUS varieties are banned from EU markets since 1966. Most traditional varieties have been lost in the meantime, and it is very likely that the sales ban has contributed considerably to the loss. Under pressure of the loss, for conservation purposes a niche was opened in 2009. However, this niche is heavily controlled. Quantitative and regional restrictions, fees and high bureaucratic burdens for each variety resulted in a failure: In the whole EU, only a small number of "conservation varieties" have thus legally entered the market. The large majority of non-DUS varieties are sold without the required regstration. They are tolerated because the EU citizens consider these varieties important for biodiversity, environment, gardening, food diversity, nutrition and health.

Further reading:

SEARICE Notes May 2009: SEARICE’s Contribution to Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources