Seed World

Who is Driving Sustainability?

Since the Brundtland report, the word ‘sustainability’ has not lost importance in society even though it became a container that could be filled with meaning at will. It is also a buzzword in many company strategies. In the seed sector the primary weight is that we contribute to sustainable production and value chains through our breeding and supply of healthy quality seeds. Higher yields, resistances to pests and diseases and tolerance to abiotic stresses, and also robustness in transport and storage, and reducing food waste at the end of the chain, we contribute.

It feels good that we contribute in such important ways. However, possibly because we do contribute so much, we are not forerunners in increasing sustainability in our operation. Sectors that are closer to consumers, and those in (petro-)chemical industries have been called upon earlier and more directly.

The fact that both environmental and social sustainability are important is engrained in the European business culture, where shareholder value is more prominent in the Anglo-Saxon business culture. Sustainability is thus an important topic for any responsible manager and company owner, who will work on such issues by him/herself. But that is apparently not enough.

The EU Commission is developing the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), extensive rules meant to create transparency on a wide range of environmental and social sustainability parameters, and also including associated due diligence obligations. This reporting will be part of the checks that accountants do on the performance of companies, so it should not be taken lightly. These are generic rules for companies in all sectors that will go way beyond the current obligations of listed companies. They will first apply to those with more than 250 staff and over €40 million turnover, but their due diligence requirement will heavily affect smaller players in the value chains: suppliers and possibly even users. Smaller breeders may thus be called upon by large traders, processors or supermarket chains. We may wonder whether this can be implemented without substantially increasing administrative costs and create interesting new markets for accountants, and as such reducing opportunities to invest in sustainability measures.

Niels Louwaars

In addition, and more specifically for our sector, the upcoming PRM (Plant Reproductive Materials) and NGT (Novel Genomic Techniques) regulations will include measures to stimulate breeders to focus even more on sustainability improving traits. How the traits will be determined and how they need to be presented remain important issues for discussion.

The third force after company responsibility and regulations is the market. Individual retailers already demand increasingly detailed sustainability information about the products they sell. There are indeed labels that may look like greenwashing, but criteria get tougher and tougher because it sells to be able to say that you are greener than the competitor, and this way they prepare value chains for the future. In many chains, these marketing systems, whether they are expressed or not as Rainforest, Globalgap, Utz, organic or other, provide a much more immediate stimulus to adhere to sustainability rules than any regulation will do. However, their impact on our part of the chains is in most cases limited. One may thus wonder whether governments are waging a rearguard action. However, the reporting requirement may give ammunition to such private standards by, in the worst case, blacklisting companies.

Through the CSRD, we are entering a new world where responsible behaviour will in some cases be traded for calculated, tick the box behaviour. I am not sure whether this is the best way to go.

Read More from the November Issue:

Seed Sector and Green Deal, New Genomic Techniques

How to Optimize Crop Protection and Maintain Yields

Navigating through the EU Funding Maze

Food, Glorious Food!