A new Bill will be presented in Parliament shortly to enforce ‘a Certificate of Conformity’ from the Department of Agriculture of ALL seeds sold in the Island. It will therefore be forbidden by law (liable to be prosecuted for non compliance) if anyone person, retailer or company sells seeds without such approval.
The reason perceived by the State in presenting this Bill is to ensure minimum standards of conformity for all seeds sold, as it is confusing to the farmers to determine which brands are reliable, and choose with no basis to ensure quality. The quality of seed is a key determinant of the productivity and profitability of a crop and in that regard and is considered the most crucial input in agriculture.
Consider the reality! Most overseas seed companies some which are subsidiaries of multinational grain, fertilizer, chemical and seed companies such as Monsanto, Cargil or Archer Daniels Midland will gain the upper hand as they have all the technical know-how and expertise to obtain such approval for their products. Most of these imported high-yield seed varieties are hybrids that require extensive use of chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides for their propagation to receive the ultimate gains in yields and harvests, enslaving the farmer to purchase the whole range of products suitable for their propagation, by the self same enterprises.
At the other extreme, I share seeds with my fellow farmers of local varieties which are not available in the market place, or those that are available show little sign of germination. Under the bill, I will not only be unable to sell these if I am the producer as they are ad hoc depending on any current cultivation, nor will I be able to buy similar seeds from farmers I happen to know, who grow cultivars of vegetables that are hard to find. In addition, growing varieties such as ‘Thalana Batu’, ‘Thibbatu’, 'Karavila' and ‘Thumba Karavila’ can only be done on an adhoc basis as seeds of these varieties in the best of times are not available, except the foreign hybrids which are really not the same.
My contention therefore is that the end result of the enforcement of the proposed Act would be to benefit these foreign seed companies and a few well established local ones, who have the resources to obtain certification. This will hasten the disappearance of local varieties which though have much lower yields, can be grown with much less use of pesticides and harmful chemicals be it fertilizer or fungicides to prevent diseases.
Instead, I propose that in order to safeguard the local varieties which need to be propagated and nurtured, especially in the event that organic produce becomes more popular that all types of seed be permitted, but those that have received certification obtain a special seal of approval, which will nevertheless carry with it a premium price over those that do not receive such certification. The farmer will then be able to choose what variety he wants. If the standards granting authority is suitably equipped they can even give different grades for the seeds such as A B C etc. which guide the buyer as to what to expect.
It is important that the Agricultural Department is armed with the necessary quality control tests to ensure compliance, and there seems to be less urgency in that regard. There is no point in obtaining certification, if there is no way of testing the quality adequately to give the certificate and only rely on foreign organizations for that reliance.
The introduction of this bill will ONLY help well established companies especially foreign ones to increase their sales at the expense of local operators. That is bad and counterproductive. I am therefore very skeptical, if the Bill will achieve what it set out to do, rather it will be a step backwards, though the intention in bringing up this bill is indeed well intentioned. Only a Farmer in the field will know the challenge of choosing the correct seeds. I can from past experience clearly say that the seeds from the same company can vary dramatically in quality, especially as to germination, and I am not sure this Bill will satisfy the simple issue of ensuring quality seed material at all times, by obtaining certification. Seeds so certified will also likely not be any different.
Let us go back to basics and ask, how farmers can obtain the confidence that the seeds they use are reliable? I would say to include ONLY imports of Seeds in this Bill and exclude local varieties, or give local companies the option of obtaining certification and NOT make it compulsory. When that is done the farmer must be notified as to choices available, as well intentions of those who have obtained certification, so that considered choices can be made whether to buy or not.
I have serious nagging doubts that this is another hair brained scheme for officials and bureaucrats to obtain money for favors,(for certification and licenses) a wholly unsatisfactory process, when the whole objective should be to give the best possible input for the particular form of agricultural enterprise farmers are engaged in be it for high yield, organic or home garden. Seed inputs VARY for each of these growing options. This essential difference in the type of agriculture farmers engage in is missing in this Bill and completely misunderstood by the law makers.