Seed World

Village Policies Are All Around Us

Policy making is not an easy task. The famous insight ‘governing is anticipating’ is increasingly difficult with populist trends more and more affecting us. Looking ahead and beyond our own limited geographical field of view is hard. For a globally operating seed sector, village-politics is troublesome. Even when global issues are being discussed, village level implementation tends to be the outcome.

A clear example of this is the Paris Agreement, which has set clear goals for the emission of greenhouse gasses. That has to be applauded, but when put in practice, it leads to perverse incentives. The famous Dutch Friesian-Holstein cattle and their suid neighbours, shit and fart a lot, so in order for the Netherlands to reach its Paris goals, their numbers need to significantly reduce according to the mathematicians. It is irrelevant whether milk and meat production in less advanced rearing systems elsewhere create much more emissions per animal than in the intensive stables in the Netherlands. So global emissions will rise as a result of the Dutch policies, but we may confidently go to the next climate meeting, but, oops, climate change does not know borders, does it? This is a clear example of village politics: putting only your own house in order, not caring about the bigger picture.

We can also see village politics closer to home. Chemical crop protection has come under pressure which is understandable since not all chemicals are equally beneficial for the environment. Explicit policy goals have been formulated in Europe. The Farm-to-Fork strategy speaks of 50 per cent less use of chemistry in agriculture; the Dutch target is ‘close to zero emissions to the environment’ in 2030. Courageous goals and a truly multi-stakeholder governance of their implementation has been put in place in the famous ‘polder’ culture of my country. The seed industry is looked upon as a major saviour of the goals. Breeding is to create the necessary ‘robust’ crops, resistant to pests and diseases and adapted to the new cropping systems. How to maintain a liveable income for the farmers is a yet unresolved ‘detail’ though. We are a powerful sector, and the government will support us to get access to the additional tools that can speed up our breeding processes. Indeed, they are aiming at making sure that gene editing becomes available for as many breeders as possible. Secondly, there is good understanding that healthy seeds are critical when you want to have a healthy crop. So reluctantly, it is accepted that the little chemicals that will still be used, need to be used most effectively, i.e., in tiny bits on the seed rather than in field sprays.

So much for the good news because trouble starts to emerge for the sector. Integrated pest management (IPM) is the buzzword as a much more “nature-like and therefore sustainable” solution. Observing the pests and diseases before taking action, thus keeping damage levels at acceptable limits rather than counting on pre-emptive strikes, is a laudable aim. The disease agents only become a problem when they reach epidemic levels. The problem lies with the definition of acceptable damage level. In seed production we have different standards and especially exported seeds clearly have different requirements. IPM and zero phyto-tolerances are not easy to match, especially when chemical corrections become scarce and biological crop protection products come to the market at a very slow pace. Our government hails the export of seeds as a positive contribution towards more sustainable cropping in third countries. But recognising the limitations of IPM in this matter is a difficult issue. It appears another example of village politics: we need to reduce chemistry at our own national level, and the rest of the world . . . . is far away.

It is difficult to connect policies that operate in different ministries or different corridors within the same ministry. We sometimes should also look at ourselves, the seed associations and their members. We often fight for a level playing field in Europe (or even globally), when it suits us, but we also celebrate the resolution of a problem at the local level, even when that goes against the immediate interest of our colleagues across the border. We tend to be happy when we create national exemptions on EU-policies that give an advantage to our own members. The most illustrative examples are indeed those in the crop protection area. The exemptions on the ban on neonic seed treatments on sugar beet are a telling example. Or liberties to treat seeds for export with products that are banned in the EU. Or the national application of the minor use exemptions.

It must be clear that also these are examples of village politics that we need to avoid, because the perverse side of the medal is always looming.