As incoming president of the European Seed Association, I would like to share some thoughts regarding how by associating together and speaking with a single voice we can be most effective. Looking at the changing world in which member companies operate their businesses, and our function as an interface with EU government, we must consider those factors that are most influential on the regulatory environment. These give rise to many of the opportunities and threats that we all have to consider in our daily work
Agriculture must respond to the challenges of climate change – the provision of safe, wholesome nutrition, economic growth and social stability whilst only utilising natural resources at a rate at which the Earth can replenish them. This puts our seed sector in a very special position because our customer oriented, entrepreneurial businesses have a core of research and development in plants, which is a key element of a societal response to these challenges. As a result, we are under ever- increasing public scrutiny and a clear focus for political opinion.
Many citizens feel uncomfortable regarding human intervention with living organisms, have mistrust of science and technology, and have concerns regarding the social responsibility and accountability of corporations and globalisation. People are worried about climate change, but they also want safe, nutritious and affordable food.
Whilst markets are powerful instruments of accountability, we know that they do not act fully on some of these issues. Crop researchers speak of ‘yield plateau’ in some field crops, insufficient genetic resistance to pests and pathogens, inability to keep pace with global population growth, erosion of plant genetic resources etc. These are all perceived market failures attracting government regulation.
This is not all one-sided, we are also concerned regarding threats to the future of our business models. We worry about having the freedom to safely apply the latest knowledge and techniques to add value to our customers and having adequately balanced intellectual property rights to retain a fair share of that value to reinvest in R&D. We need improved conservation of plant genetic resources along with simple access for breeding and research and we need trade rules that ensure fair access to markets.
Regulators are therefore heavily involved in our markets both to safeguard the public interest and to enable the markets themselves to function. We look for balanced, proportionate regulation. If regulators continue to be surrounded by impenetrable technical argumentation, misunderstanding and misinformation about our sector, then the risks are enormous both for our companies and for society.
However, I am optimistic. Many of the threats and concerns described above originate from insufficient information that citizens can trust and relate to.
We must recognise that citizens’ worries are real and valid. Who amongst the seed industry doesn’t have a desire to protect the environment and have a secure supply of healthy food? It may be an uncomfortable thought but we therefore have significant common ground with many of the people who we might not consider to be our natural allies in dialogue with regulators.
We should be neither surprised nor offended that our messages are interpreted in the context of our economic motive. We should be proud to be market-led and entrepreneurial, creating value and jobs. We can only survive by continual improvement in our varieties, seed quality and service. However, we are private sector with a profit motive and therefore we are not independent and not fully trusted. ‘Get over it’ as my children tell me.
We must clearly demonstrate that we work with nature not against it. Human intervention in cross-pollination of plants with empirical observation and little predictability has over thousands of years developed our major food crop species from wild progenitors. The future will bring new possibilities that can take us closer to providing sustainable productivity of safe, nutritious, affordable crops. Our work in applying scientific know-how and producing quality seed of high performing varieties will be a key part of mitigating climate change, protecting and conserving the environment and contributing towards human health, wellbeing and ultimately social stability.
We have to be transparent and reach out to a wide audience, be prepared to respectfully address their questions and explain why we trust in what we know. We have to address highly technical subjects – the legal aspects of IPR, breeding techniques, biodiversity, seed marketing, plant health, international trade, organic farming, GMO. These are impossible for the non-specialist to quickly absorb and technical justifications are unlikely to be understood or even believed. We have to say clearly why these topics are relevant to food security, safety, environmental protection, the economy and the public interest.
We therefore need to provide sources of data and information for scrutiny by independent experts, so that citizens can understand the evidence and be motivated and energized to make their voices heard and support the case for a vibrant and innovative seed sector.
If rich countries with fertile soils, sunshine, natural rainfall and infrastructure do not shoulder their global responsibility to optimise sustainable production in their region, it is effectively exporting environmental harm and hunger to more vulnerable regions. I believe it is ethically indefensible to turn our backs on our responsibility in Europe and risk the welfare of future generations by a failure to apply the innovations needed to play our part.
It would be naïve to suggest that we can persuade the strongest sceptics and those with political views that cannot countenance corporate activity in crop research and agriculture. It is difficult to debate with those who fundamentally believe that a return to peasant agriculture with free exchange of farm selected seeds and minimal technology is a credible approach to the future. However, here we must have tolerance and coexistence as our goals.
Under the presidency of Gerard Backx, ESA has highlighted these topics as priority issues. For me, I intend to continue what Gerard has started and focus my presidency in the areas of outreach, communication and influence. My goal is to further the public and political understanding of our work which is essential to have regulations that foster trust and that create opportunity for a thriving plant breeding and seed sector. Essential for this is the wider recognition of the profound public good that is delivered with every bag of authentic seed purchased by a farmer.
Editor’s Note: Nigel Moore is the head of business administration for KWS’ Cereals Division and incoming president of the European Seed Association.