Seed World

SAA: Adjusting to a New Normal

Diego Risso of the Seed Association of the Americas spoke with European Seed’s sister publication Seed World about members’ experiences during COVID-19.

During this unprecedented time of uncertainty, the Seed Association of the Americas (SAA) has been committed to the agri-food chain — especially when it comes to ensuring the supply of high-quality seeds necessary to guarantee the production and availability of healthy and safe food.

While companies are all adapting their business to the “new normal” of working during COVID-19, SAA reached out to their members for more information on how their businesses have been affected by COVID-19. In particular, SAA looked at whether or not the movement of seed was affected, seed shortages have been noticed or if any restrictions have been placed on the regulations of seed.

To learn more about what SAA members are facing, Seed World sat down to speak with Diego Risso, executive director of SAA, who recently conducted a survey among SAA members to determine what the biggest effects of COVID-19 were on their industries.

Seed World (SW): What is the current state and challenges of the seed industry and seed movement in your area? 

Diego Risso (DR): From what we can see, the seed industry has been able to continue its operations, lab and phytosanitary testing. Borders remain open to cargo and seed transportation is moving.

Authorities have been studying how to keep borders open to the movement of goods, and so far, most of the processes have been working. However, we’re seeing a few unexpected delays in certain areas. For example, Canada is seeing seed move, but with increased difficulties and delays, such as regulatory service delays and increased cost of transportation (as well as availability of transportation difficulties).

Prices are causing a bit of difficulty in certain areas as well — Mexico’s main challenge currently are declining sales and cash flow. In the future, they’re expecting to see a reduction in the production of several crops (in particular, vegetables) due to this decline caused by the rise of the U.S. dollar. In Colombia, however, there’s been an increase in sales recently in anticipation of the increase of the U.S. dollar.

Other regions note that seed flow has been stable, but there have been some logistical concerns between companies and their NPPOs. However, in Argentina, with open communication, these issues have been solved rather quickly.

SW: Have you experienced any shortages in any crops?

DR: In short, not yet! Our members do not see any major issues currently. According to Mexico, seed companies are reducing their production programs due to the decline in distribution and sale and this could have impacts in the medium term. For example, in the case of corn seed that is mainly sold in March, April and May to sow the spring-summer cycle, it will be affected and therefore there might be a drop in the production of corn grain.

On the other hand, companies that import and provide vegetative material for the ornamental sector have been mainly affected by the exchange rate. In addition, ornamental producers have reduced their sales and flow so much, they have cancelled their programs, so they will have no product by the time the contingency ends, by not sowing now.

Other than that, there have been no notices of seed shortages at this time.

SW: Has there been a spike in demand for any products?

DR: No, but there have been some specific cases in certain countries. For example, Canada and the U.S. have seen a huge spike in demand in the home garden seed sector due to an influx of home gardeners. Colombia notes that there’s been an increase in crops related to food safety, including corn, rice, beans and potatoes.

SW: Have there been any restrictions that hinder the production or movement of seeds? 

DR: For the most part, seed has been moving easily and freely. However, there have been some delays in certain countries, but most of these problems were solved by chatting with NPPOs to solve them. Peru has seen that NPPOs did work at 50% of its usual capacity, with some delays at ports. Canada is also expecting some unexpected delays, even with international borders open to seed trade — unfortunately, there’s been some confusion about interprovincial movement restrictions.

Fortunately for our industry, countries are recognizing seed as essential and priority by governments, which allows activities to continue.

SW: Are you still able to get seed to your current customer base, or have you been having difficulties with transportation?

DR: This is an area where regions are experiencing some challenges. While seed is continuing to move to customers, many regions are experiencing some logistical challenges. Some problems to note:

Transportation availability and affordable cargo space has been a challenge in areas such as the United States and Canada. While transportation of cargo is considered an essential service in both areas, both have experienced logistical challenges. Canada notes that courier mailing is slow, as seed and agriculture doesn’t seem to be a priority.

Mexico notes that transportation has become difficult due to roadblocks by civilians who seek to stop the spread of COVID-19 — however, after explaining that seed is being transported for farmers, roadblocks are released for passage. Along those lines, Brazil mentions difficulty in transporting rural workers to areas where seed production takes place.

Other regions, such as Chile, note that thanks to COVID-19, the transportation/movement of seed process has actually sped up.

Diego Risso, SAA Secretary General.

SW: Are there any issues when it comes to seed certification, seed testing, issues of labels/tags? 

DR: Most members aren’t seeing issues of big concern — just minor inconveniences that are solved quickly. For example, the United States conducted a survey of their state regulatory and commercial labs to learn their status, and most have reported that their output has slowed due to a reduction of staff, limiting space between employees and/or hours of operations. Colombia notes that there have been a few delays on delivering results after taking samples for seed quality analysis. Fortunately, all associations are in dialogue with their regulatory bodies to find quick solutions to these issues.

SW: Any positive developments when it comes to seed certification, green lanes, essential services, etc.?

DR: Agriculture has been declared as an essential service in most of the countries of the SAA region. Therefore, seeds are a component of that. Most of the economies in the Americas are agriculture based, or at the minimum, agriculture is a key component of it. Most countries are learning now how to adapt and be flexible on allowing R&D operations to continue as well. Other countries, such as Mexico, Argentina and Chile, are working to accelerate the implementation of ePhyto certification and electronic communication.

Dialogues between the seed industry and their governments have increased. This is good — communication will help our industry continue to be recognized as essential.

SW: Is increased labor/staff absenteeism impacting your members?

DR: Again, unfortunately labor absenteeism is varying from country to country. Many countries notes that some seed companies have been sent to work from home, but for those companies that cannot do that, the Governments implemented new structures and protocols, such as the delivery of health kits, healthy distancing, health promotion, outreach and awareness campaigns, etc. Meanwhile, Colombia notes that this unfortunately has and will continue to affect their industry, as many actions in the field are done in person — unfortunately, due to COVID-19, this have been difficult to carry out.

Other member regions, such as Brazil, Uruguay and Chile note that absenteeism hasn’t been seen as the industry continues to adapt to the current scenario.

SW: Have you heard of farmers in your country trashing excess crops?

DR: This problem was seen more so in North America, instead of in Latin American countries. The United States has seen instances of growers unable to sell their produce to their typical hotel, restaurant or school customers who have to plow the crop back into the field. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on plans to purchase and distribute up to $3 billion of agriculture products to those in need.

SW: Are you aware of any contingency plans for the future among your members? 

DR: Yes, most region countries are working on plans for the future. Mexico, for example, says the Mexican Seed Association has invited its members to prepare for a possible escalation of the pandemic, and begin identifying activities that are essential for production. Colombia, through Acosemillas, AgroBio and the Sociedad de Agricultores de Colombia, are having continuous follow-ups and virtual meetings to participate in the discussions on emergency measures to be taken by the national government (including protocols, exceptions, lines of credit and support for farmers).

Other regions note that there are not formal plans in place — Brazil mentions in addition to remote working, they are monitoring any difficulties that might pop up to their partners.

SW: Do you have any other major concerns currently about the state of the seed industry during COVID-19?

DR: There have been some delays in regulatory processes, and workforce availability and movement is going to be a concern. Canada notes that the long-term impact on delayed R&D is concerning. In certain countries, such as Mexico, road closures continue to be a concern — locals trying to avoid the spread of the virus causes problems occasionally! Colombia notes there’s a delay of certification process, which potentially can be concerning, and Brazil and Argentina are concerned about whether this crisis can affect international seed transit.

Then, logistics might prove to be a challenge — how do we do things now? How can we move forward? These are all questions we’re trying to answer.

Lessons to Learn

Overall, there are some big takeaways SAA has learned from our member survey.

Communication is key. Now is the time to be in constant dialogue with our regulatory bodies. We, as an industry, need to share what we’re facing to continue our work as a business. And what’s better yet — regulatory bodies are more than willing to listen right now. This is a big change for everyone, but everyone’s ready to help ensure that farmers are receiving the seed they need to grow food for the world. Unfortunately, it does take time to build this relationship, but luckily, we’re all going through this together.

Transparency to seed companies is imperative as well. Taking the time to check in with seed companies, see what some issues they’re facing and working toward a solution is important. By sharing information with their colleagues, associations, and companies together can find faster solutions to problems created by COVID-19.

Associations are strong. The member associations are working at their full capacity and strength right now to fight for their industry! Whether that’s lobbying for their members or keeping them updated, associations are all in this together to protect the seed industry. During the year, associations have built a great network and confident dialogue with regulatory bodies, which are today crucial channels to find quick and effective solutions.

Seed continues to move. One of the most important things to note is that seed continues to move globally. While there might be some hiccups here or there, most members report that no borders have been closed to the movement of seed, as agriculture, and seed along with it, has been deemed essential.

SAA will continue to monitor the current COVID-19 crisis and how it’s affecting the Americas.