Initially planned in 2020 when the planet was just entering lockdown, the South African edition of the World Seed Congress will take place in 2023 in Cape Town in early June. “It has been 20 years since this event was held on the African continent,” stated Michael Keller, Secretary General of the International Seed Federation (ISF). In mid-April, no fewer than 1,200 delegates are expected and the African continent will be extremely well represented. “The African continent is facing many challenges in the seed sector. Representatives from Ghana, Malawi, Uganda… are already registered. This will be a unique opportunity to strengthen our cooperation with AFSTA (African Seed Trade Association). When it comes to meeting the challenges of the continent, one thing is certain: the seed sector is not large enough to meet existing needs; there are only about 20 companies responsible for breeding, propagation and distribution”, explains Michael Keller.
“For two years we have been professing the concept of 'seed resilience”, explains the Secretary General, and this congress will be an opportunity to communicate specifically on this subject. Just in case the exact translation of this concept is not perfectly clear, it is the philosophy of seeing seeds as the key to food and nutritional security by making them accessible to all farmers on the planet. “This implies a choice from among diverse species, in sufficient quantity and adapted to different pedoclimatic contexts. This initiative must contribute to the development of a seed supply that also responds to environmental, health, social and economic issues within a coherent regulatory and legislative framework”, explains the Secretary General.
Realization of ambitions
To illustrate his point, Michael Keller announces that this project will first be implemented in Rwanda. “A testing platform will be deployed in collaboration with the NGO Fair Planet. Vegetables and legume crops, but also species such as sorghum and maize will be bred and multiplied. Improved varieties are often inaccessible to African farmers. We will begin to lay the necessary groundwork to establish a sector thus ensuring access and autonomy for farmers. This is essential if we are to ensure local food and nutritional security. With this initiative, we seek to support the development of an inclusive and supportive environment which also includes legislation on seeds, varieties, plant protection, seed imports, etc. Rwanda was chosen to initiate this approach because it is a relatively stable country politically and already heavily constrained by climate change”, said the Secretary-General.
Mobilize the collective
In June 2022, Michael Keller was elected President of IAFN (International Agri-Food Network) for a two-year term. Created in 1998 on the occasion of the World Food Summit, this body brings together no fewer than 22 associations and 10,000 companies engaged in the agri-food sector. “This new mission provides another opportunity to represent the seed industry and remind everyone that seeds are at the core of the challenges we face and must be part of global discussions,” declares the President. Moreover “we must mobilize all forces, share points of view and go beyond debates and controversies to collectively build change. That is the strength of such a network.” And if there is one issue on which Michael Keller would like to advance, it is the debate surrounding NBTs (new breeding techniques). “Genome editing techniques are not solutions but rather tools that must be made available to private and public researchers. Already at least 40 countries have research programs that employ these techniques and we need to take this further to be able to respond to the challenges before us, particularly climate change. The goal is to have diversified genetic material to create tomorrow’s varieties adapted to the new growing conditions.”
This work and collective discussions also make it possible to move forward on political issues that make sense in the face of certain difficulties. “One year after the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, we realized that the flow of seed exchanges had never stopped. Of course it was necessary and indispensable for the country to ensure its own food security and that of other countries dependent on production in the Black Sea area. Whether it is the covid pandemic or the war in Ukraine, these crises remind us of the importance of sovereignty. But once again, we are referring to collective sovereignty. Ukraine has been supplied thanks to resources flowing in from other countries. This bears witness to essential interdependencies, especially regarding seeds, and also forces us to think about how to diversify production,” says Michael Keller.
The time is no longer for declarations of intent but rather for the concrete implementation of objectives shared with international bodies, NGOs and businesses. Objectives that aim to increase the diversity and adaptability of genetic resources, but also their accessibility to ensure food security.